By Haney Hong
With all the hubbub around the impeachment and elections at the national level, it is easy to forget about serious — and possibly more important — issues at the local level. As a soon-to-be-father, I know that nothing is more valuable than the gift of education. And six school districts in our region are asking us for our property tax dollars to finance the facilities where our kids will study and learn. You should know: half of the six districts get a passing grade on their proposals. Others, not so much!
For most voters, all the information you’re going to get on these school bond proposals will be the short ballot language and the arguments in the voter guide. Now you might get some campaign materials, too, to get you to vote yes, but they’ll do so by appealing to your sense of commitment to kids. Any messaging you see is likely to say something simple and potentially manipulative: “fix leaky roofs” or “support your kids’ futures!”
No one expects you to actually dig into the details, though someone old school might say you’ve got a civic duty to read about these school bonds before you vote on them.
Like with most things, it’s never that simple. If you really wanted to give a passing or failing grade to a school bond proposal, you’d quickly learn they’re chock full of technicalities and very complicated public debt arrangements. To truly understand what a school bond might be, you’d need not only a legal background to understand the legalese, but also a public finance and architectural background, too, to make an assessment.
I have a public policy degree from Harvard’s school of government. I didn’t, however, go to the law school or the design school. Fortunately, there are people on my staff at the San Diego County Taxpayers Association to help us look at the construction and finance details. But even with this expertise, it took us weeks if not months to really understand what’s in these six school bond proposals in March.
That’s why you’ve counted on us for decades to look at these school bond programs. You just don’t have the time, and we want to make sure you don’t get manipulated into raising your taxes for something that doesn’t actually help our kids effectively. Just vote for the stuff that really does help — that really does help us give the gift of education to our kids.
My staff and the members of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association go through the reams of paper that capture the details of the various school bond proposals. There are so many binders that I occasionally joke we need a binder to track the binders!
It’s through our months-long review process that we have the list of passing and failing school bond proposals on the March 2020 ballot for you. We recommend you support Cajon Valley, Escondido Union, and Poway Unified.
Allow me also to explain why some failed, though if you want more than what I can fit here, go to our website.
- Chula Vista Elementary School District – $242 Million Bond Measure — I have to acknowledge that Chula Vista Elementary School District put together a plan that was comprehensive. They met many of the key provisions of our grading criteria. However, their plan to spend $65 million for a 100-unit project to build housing for teachers left open too many concerns. That’s a significant amount of money, and data didn’t overwhelmingly show a true need for faculty housing. Costs per unit were not included and questions about long-term maintenance were also not in the proposal. We also wonder if a different kind of debt would be a more appropriate way to get their teachers housed.
- Lakeside Union School District – $33 Million Bond Measure — Lakeside Union School District met some of the SDCTA School Bond Support criteria, but there were key items that did not meet standards. Overhead projections were significantly higher than average. Their original proposal to us had buses and furniture — stuff you don’t buy with this kind of 30-year debt. That begs questions on managerial acumen.
This stuff is complicated, and I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the staff and members of the civic institution I lead who dug into the details. I’m glad that we took the time — this way San Diego is truly equipped to give our kids the gift of education.
Haney Hong is president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a 74-year-old nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, dedicated to promoting accountable, cost-effective and efficient government and opposing unnecessary new taxes and fees.
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