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The Learning Curve: School Bond Bonanza

A new influx of construction money is about to rain down on San Diego County schools. Here’s why most school districts have prioritized school construction over education-focused initiatives that could lead to better outcomes for students.

School bond funds helped pay for a new media studio at San Diego High School. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

A new influx of construction money is about to rain down on San Diego County schools – more than $4.8 billion.

School bonds, it turns out, are popular. San Diego County voters passed 10 of 11 construction bonds on this year’s ballot. And, it should be no surprise. Since 2008, roughly 80 percent of all school bond measures in San Diego County have been approved by voters.

But these results point to what, for my money, has turned out to be a major flaw in California’s election law. Even though 11 school districts placed construction bonds on this year’s ballot, not a single district asked voters to approve a parcel tax – which would allow a district to pay for more teachers or, say, expand pre-kindergarten or after-school care.

The reasoning is simple: Only 55 percent of voters must approve a construction bond; it takes 66.6 percent of voters to pass a parcel tax. Because of that high threshold, very few San Diego County districts have even attempted a parcel tax in the past decade.  And none that have tried, since at least 2008, have succeeded.

Voters approved the current structure in 2000 with Prop. 39, which brought the school bond threshold down from two-thirds to 55 percent.

But for districts that don’t have a very liberal voting base, like San Diego, the result has been clear: They’ve prioritized school construction over education-focused initiatives that could lead to better outcomes for students.

The school districts that can pass parcel taxes are few and congregated in very specific areas – mostly around the Bay Area and to a lesser extent Los Angeles, according to Ballotpedia. Meanwhile, construction bonds have passed in a wide range of districts across the state.

Marshall Tuck – who appears to be California’s new state superintendent – told me he supports lowering the threshold on a parcel tax.

San Diego Unified Board Trustee Richard Barrera also supports lowering the threshold, if not giving taxing authority back to local government agencies altogether. He told me if the threshold were lower, it’s entirely possible San Diego voters would have seen a parcel tax, instead of a construction bond, on the ballot this year. (The construction bond, he said, was still needed. And if it hadn’t been on the ballot this year, it would be in 2020.)

The results of San Diego Unified’s ballot measure over the past decade tell a very clear story. The district passed all three construction bonds it put before voters in 2008, 2012 and 2018. Those bonds total $8.4 billion. In 2010, its only parcel tax, which would have generated roughly $250 million for school workers, failed.

Bond Obsessed?

As you can probably tell, I’ve kind of been obsessing on school bonds. In fact, I wrote about them 2.5 times last week.

First, on Monday, I published an investigation into the companies that donate to school bond campaigns and the contracts they win. The results were similar to a previous Voice of San Diego investigation: Most major donors to school bond campaigns later win lucrative contracts. It’s a common misconception that school building contracts always go to the lowest bidder. (A misconception spread in part because the chairman of the school bond campaign has said definitively that they go to the lowest bidder.) My investigation found building companies that donated to San Diego Unified school bond campaigns won a combined $320 million in contracts. And the clear majority of those contracts were awarded based on a subjective scoring process; in other words, they didn’t just go to the lowest bidder. All 10 companies that gave more than $10,000 over the past seven years also won contracts. Shout out to Kayla Jimenez who helped with that.

Next, Ry Rivard and I dug into San Diego Unified’s campaign to convince voters on this year’s bond. The district’s main selling point: Get lead out of school water. One commercial featured the 2018 elementary school teacher of the year telling voters, “I buy bottled water for my students so they don’t have to drink school water with lead.” The clear implication was for parents to be afraid. In its 2012 bond campaign, San Diego Unified frightened voters with concerns over asbestos. But after that bond passed, school officials said, actually, much of the asbestos was safe because it wasn’t airborne and didn’t really need to be removed after all.

Finally, I wrote about Sweetwater Union High School District’s credit being downgraded. That’s not exactly a bond story. But it kind of is, because a district’s credit rating speaks to its ability to manage money. Fitch downgraded Sweetwater’s credit rating just days before voters were being asked to pass a $403 million bond. In the end, they passed it with a whopping 65 percent.

In Other Ed News

  • Measure H, which imposed term limits on San Diego Unified board members, overwhelmingly passed. Board members will now be limited to three terms. But many, including the Union-Tribune editorial board, were dissatisfied with the measure, largely because they believed it skirted actual community concerns. For one, the term limits won’t kick in until 2020, meaning they won’t retroactively affect the current board members. Perhaps the even bigger gripe is that the board did not put up a measure that would have moved San Diego Unified to district-only elections. Board members run in their local districts only during the primary. During general elections in November, they must run citywide. Opponents say this favors unions, which can spend big money to get their candidates elected in citywide races. A lawsuit is currently in the works that may force San Diego Unified to move to district-only elections. The current system meant little-known challengers Marcia Nordstrom and Tom Keliinoi had a slim chance against incumbents Michael McQuary and Kevin Beiser. Both incumbents cruised to victory Tuesday.
  • In Wisconsin, the state superintendent, Tony Evers, unseated conservative luminary Gov. Scott Walker. The New Yorker reported education was one of the driving issues in the race.
  • New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio is putting an end to a bold plan that put nearly $1 billion into the hundred worst-performing schools in the city. Very early on in the program, called Renewal, aides realized that about one-third of the schools in the program were likely to fail. De Blasio’s plan was largely untested, but he had hoped it might become a model for failing schools across the country. The apparently mediocre results led officials to move toward shuttering the program. I’ll be interested to see someone take a deeper dive on this. Did the program show any promising results? Or did a billion dollars have virtually zero impact?
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