Students walk near the entrance to the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. The district is asking voters for $348,000,000 in a bond measure. Megan Wood, inewsource
Students walk near the entrance to the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. The district is asking voters for $348,000,000 in a bond measure. Megan Wood, inewsource

School districts from Fallbrook and Bonsall through El Cajon and the South Bay are asking voters for a total of $1.6 billion in bond money this November.

Take a look at any of the 10 bond measures on the ballot and you’ll see a familiar litany of needs: leaky roofs, deteriorating pipes and overwhelmed electrical systems. The new money is aimed at improving school safety, modernizing classrooms and, perhaps as a nod to the people footing the bill, revamping student drop-off areas to reduce traffic.

A few districts propose major construction: a new community college workforce training center in the East County, and a new high school in Bonsall.

All the measures promise strict protections, sometimes written in bond documents in all caps: No money for administrators’ salaries, regular audits of the bond program, an independent bond oversight committee and none of the money will be snatched away by Sacramento. Those taxpayer protections, it should be noted, are mandated by the California education code.

Individual district needs aside, there’s at least one good reason districts are asking voters for bond money now: It’s cheap.

“Interest rates are still really low,” said Dan McAllister, the San Diego County treasurer and tax collector. “So the cost of issuance is incredibly low.”

However, the low rates aren’t luring record numbers of districts to ask for money. There were more measures up for a vote in the previous two presidential election years, and they had bigger numbers. In 2008 and 2012 voters in San Diego Unified were asked to approve bonds for $2.1 billion and $2.8 billion, respectively.

Most voters in the city of San Diego are off the hook for local bonds this election. However, voters in the northern part of the city might have to vote for the MiraCosta Community College and Solana Beach School District bond measures.

40 year bonds, 2 year schools

Community colleges stand out in this election. Three of the county’s five college districts are asking for bond money — the most in a single year since at least 1994. Combined, they’re asking voters for more than $1.2 billion.

MiraCosta College, a district that stretches from Del Mar to Oceanside, is asking for $455 million. The Grossmont-Cuyamaca College district, which reaches from Spring Valley to Mountain Empire, wants $348 million. And Southwestern College, which serves people from Coronado to Chula Vista, wants $400 million.

The size of the bond measures reflects the expanded mission of community colleges. Where they once might have focused primarily on preparing students for a four-year college, now they’re providing “training programs and certification programs that they never would have necessarily ventured into 10 years ago,” McAllister said.

The arguments in support of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca and Southwestern bond measures bear some striking resemblances.

Both promise the bond will “make college affordable,” prepare their students for “21st century careers” and make “critically needed repairs” throughout their campuses. They both also emphasize the bond will “assist veterans re-entering the workforce.”

Grossmont-Cuyamaca promises to upgrade classrooms and labs, improve facilities for veterans and “build a career and job training campus.” Southwestern also wants to upgrade classrooms and labs, build vocational classrooms and expand job training and support facilities for veterans.

MiraCosta College makes similar promises, including new labs and technology for science, health care and skilled trades, as well as expanding the school’s Veterans’ Center.

But promises don’t tell the whole story. The fine print gives college officials wide latitude on spending. In dense, 400-word sentences near the end of all the ballot measures, the colleges list some other projects the bond money can be used for. They include projects like buying vehicles, building gyms and locker rooms, even installing solar panels.

Grossmont-Cuyamaca’s ballot lists “athletic fields, dugouts (and) stadium seating and lighting,” as allowed bond projects. MiraCosta could pay for “bleachers (and a) press box.”

It’s up to a school board to prioritize projects. As long as they’re listed in the bond measure, school stadiums or new media centers could get funded before a single leaky roof is patched.

For Haney Hong, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, how a district uses bond money is an ethical question.

“When a bond passes, that means it’s we the people who are willing to relinquish a little bit … in the form of property taxes,” he said. “The superintendents and the school board members have an ethical responsibility to ensure that they’re good stewards of these public resources.”

Watchdogging the money

Grossmont-Cuyamaca and Southwestern’s measures are the only local school bonds opposed by the taxpayers association so far this election.

In part, the association rejected the measures because the districts failed to provide the additional information it requested. In its official statement for both measures, the association wrote that if the districts can’t provide “detailed information about the financials and management of its bond program,” then “it is also likely not to be transparent with the public about these details.”

Community colleges have also attracted thousands of dollars to committees that support their bond measures. A Strong MiraCosta, Yes on MM has attracted the most money, more than $416,000 in support. South Bay Families for Affordable College – Yes on Z has raised $70,000 so this election.

The only bond measure to attract a committee in opposition is the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. The pro bond group, Careers & Affordable Education for East County – Yes on X, has received more than $56,000, but it has been outraised by No On X, East County Committee, which has more than $85,000 so far.

The taxpayers association has supported six other measures. (Its opinion on National Elementary’s measure is due later in October and it is not taking a side on Solana Beach’s measure.)

Hong considers school bonds one of the organization’s “bread and butter issues.” The association goes through a rigorous process before supporting or endorsing each measure.

“I would never describe public finance as simple,” he said. Looking at the facility plans, financing assumptions and policy proposals can be complicated. “In fact most people probably just wouldn’t have the time to do that.”

The association aims to fill that gap by providing its own assessments of each bond. It also encourages districts to adopt best practices in things like construction.

It wants to make sure the need — those new classrooms or proverbial leaky roofs — match the bond request. The group also looks at how long it’ll take to pay back those bonds, and how that matches up to the lifespan of what will be built.

Most bonds up for a vote this November focus on traditional capital projects — building stuff like classrooms and libraries. Those are projects with life cycles in the decades. Cajon Valley Union Elementary School District’s measure is different. It focuses specifically on new technology using short-term bonds.

The money could be used to buy laptops, tablets and projectors. It can also pay for software, infrastructure like wi-fi routers, and training related to the new equipment. While traditional bonds last 20 or 30 years, Cajon Valley’s measure requires that all new bonds are paid off in five years.

“It’s like what Apple stores do with iPhones,” Hong said. Consumers can buy up a phone with a loan program from Apple and pay it off over the life of the product.

“Your iPhone, you’re probably not going to use it for more than two years (so) probably that’s how long the term is,” he said.

A similar bond was rejected by voters in the Cajon Valley district in 2014 — it got 51 percent of the vote, shy of the required 55 percent.

Voters also should know that bond authorization or tax money could run out long before any given project is actually completed.

“From a logical perspective if you give voters a list of things you’re going to fund with the bond issue then you ought to fund those things,” McAllister said. “I don’t think that’s a major issue in San Diego but I think it’s a buyer beware kind of deal.”

Bond elections can be a personal issue for voters, particularly for those with children in school.

“I think it’s hard to generalize about bonds,” Hong said. “If (voters) live in a district where there’s been mismanagement or where folks haven’t done well with their bond proposal, I can imagine they would not be particularly pleased if another bond comes up.”

Bond measures in California need 55 percent of the vote to pass. And often, they do. In 2014, 80 percent of the school bonds up for a vote throughout the state were approved by voters.

Voters in San Diego County, however, weren’t so willing to part with their tax money — only half the local measures got voter approval in 2014. It wasn’t always like that. From 2004 to 2010, 23 out of 24 bond measures before voters in the county passed. Since then, only 11 out of 21 have made it.

Voters in parts of East County have the distinction of voting on three separate bond measures next month: the elementary district, a $128 million bond from Grossmont Union High School District and Grossmont-Cuyamaca College’s measure.

Voters in Cardiff and Solana Beach will also vote on MiraCosta College’s bond measure.

Student teacher Elisse Bevilacqua teaches a class inside a portable at Skyline Elementary in the Solana Beach School District. Solana Beach has a new bond measure before voters. April 12, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource
Student teacher Elisse Bevilacqua teaches a class inside a portable at Skyline Elementary in the Solana Beach School District. Solana Beach has a new bond measure before voters. April 12, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

Those two districts have also attracted disparate amounts of campaign contributions. Solana Beach’s Keep Our School Great! Yes on JJ committee has raised more than $34,000. The Yes on Measure GG Committee Rebuild 4 Cardiff Kids group has only raised $650.

In the North County, Friends of Fallbrook High School Yes on AA has raised $25,000. Just to the east, Bonsall Taxpayers for Schools, Yes on DD has raised more than $17,000.

In the South Bay, National School District’s Committee for Measure HH raised more than $7,500, mostly from a previous bond measure committee.

In the East County, another study in contrast: Grossmont Union High School District’s Yes for East County High School – Yes on BB has raised almost $300,000, the second most in the county. Cajon Valley Union’s Yes on EE for Cajon Valley Schools hasn’t received any new contribution, but it has $405 from a previous bond measure campaign.

These and other local bond measures are on a ballot that stands out because of the sheer number of state and county ballot measures and propositions. That could be bad news for districts hoping for a friendly crowd in the voting booth. McAllister wonders if long ballots will drive some voters to simply stay home on Nov. 8.

“Or, worse yet,” he said, “they may vote down some of these initiatives because they’re overwhelmed with initiatives statewide as well as locally.”

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Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.