Nan Austin

Doing the math, bond debt for California schools may not pencil out

Jim Mylar welds pipe at the Pitman High School construction site in Turlock in March of 2001. Pitman was built for $44 million, plus a $4.5 addition in 2004.
Jim Mylar welds pipe at the Pitman High School construction site in Turlock in March of 2001. Pitman was built for $44 million, plus a $4.5 addition in 2004. Modesto Bee file

School buildings are made up of more than walls and windows. In any town, they hold the footprint of local history and tall hopes for tomorrow.

High schools, particularly, become architectural touchstones. Modesto High outgrew its stately beginnings, but even stretched and pulled over a larger footprint, its main building maintains the face of a more gracious age. The brick-fronted early building of Turlock High School, made obsolete by earthquake-ready building codes and ravaged by fire, still serves the adults of Turlock Unified.

To the north in both cities stand more recent additions to educational heritage: Enochs and Gregori high schools in Modesto, Pitman High in Turlock. All three boast a soaring architectural style, their buildings encompassing a massive interior space.

The difference between the two eras is striking in style, use of space and – behind the scenes – in financing.

The days of easily understood and argued school debt seem as bygone as brick facades. A report released July 21 by the nonprofit California Policy Center called “For the Kids” lays out $200 billion in existing school bond debt. In other words, taxpayers owe $32,074 for every child now in kindergarten through high school across California.

Much of that debt has had to limbo under limits on raising taxes, pushing the payment dates out further and further. Forty-year commitments are common, meaning today’s kindergartners could be paying off those loans about the time their grandchildren start kindergarten.

In 2013, The Bee did an overview of all the bond debt in Stanislaus County, $1.3 billion. As massive as that number looks, it divides out to a comparative bargain, about $12,600 per schoolchild.

From 2001 to 2014, voters statewide approved nearly four out of five bond measures proposed by school districts, 911 of them, notes the report. In 2016, it estimates at least 100 districts will put forward additional bond issues for voters to approve.

A drive for equity is helping push those numbers. Schools in the older, poorer section of town do not look like those in newer, more prosperous developments, and advocates say they convey a sense of lowered expectations that hurts student achievement and prospects.

Then there is age itself, the hallmarks of a life hard-lived as hundreds of youngsters crowd in to learn, lunch and play each day. The average age of Modesto City Schools’ campuses is 50 strenuous years. Though the district has pay-as-you-go plans in place to replace elderly roofs, replacing old pipes and outdated wiring does not come cheap.

Another push for local bonds will undoubtedly be coming because the state, at least for now, says it is bowing out of its central role as school construction financier. This is a huge blow to high-needs school districts here. Ceres Unified, for one, built a raft of schools on the state dime over the past decade.

“Our ideas are unpopular, but going forward we can’t afford to keep going as we have,” said state Department of Finance Director Michael Cohen, speaking to the annual conference of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees in Sacramento in May.

The state pays $2.4 billion a year to pay off school construction. With 80 percent of local school bond measures passing, Cohen said, it makes no sense for the state to keep taking on more debt. Besides the high debt load cost, the state’s way of doing business was unfair and took away local control, he said.

“The first-come, first-served system rewards districts that have consultants ready to roll,” Cohen said, leaving potentially more deserving districts with nothing.

Where the state does see a role for a helping hand, Cohen said, is in allowing districts more flexibility and working to raise the bond cap on local property taxes.

That would address the limbo dance but also would draw protests from taxpaying groups. Perhaps it should, as people would be more aware of what they will actually be paying.

“It is time to be wary,” notes the CPC report, written by Kevin Dayton. “Most voters cannot explain how a bond measure works and do not get enough information to make an educated decision about the wisdom of a bond measure.”

The report puts forward five recommendations for lawmakers. Three address transparency and voter education, seeking more effective oversight for bond measures. Another asks for more effective rules over conflicts of interest in contracting related to bond measures.

It also advises adding rules about inappropriate and excessive spending of bond proceeds, something local school board members believe they guard against.

When the Summerville Union High School District spent a significant chunk of bond money buying computers for its students, board members called it startup money, recognizing it was an imperfect answer to a pressing desire to give their students the best. But they were less clear on how the district will afford to replace the devices in the three-year cycle experts consider an optimistic lifespan for school computers.

What is clear is that the grandchildren of the high school students using those laptops will have to finish paying them off.