Education Lab

Statewide report criticizes passage of school bonds

Central Unified School District's Glacier Point Middle School, at Bryan and Ashlan Avenues, was funded by the local Measure B bond and $11M in matching funds from the State Building Bond.
Central Unified School District's Glacier Point Middle School, at Bryan and Ashlan Avenues, was funded by the local Measure B bond and $11M in matching funds from the State Building Bond. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

More than 80% of proposed school bond measures — about $110 billion — have passed in California since 2001 after Proposition 39 reduced the voter threshold required for approval, according to a new report from the California Policy Center.

While bonds have allowed hundreds of districts to build and renovate facilities over the past decade, the California Policy Center — a nonprofit think tank — claims that in some cases, school bonds are unnecessary, and their increasing prevalence is leading to massive debt.

The report calls for more oversight and a push for transparency regarding bond issues, saying many voters don’t have a clear picture of what they’re approving. Bonds also perpetuate conflicts of interest with contractors who would benefit from their approval, according to the report.

“With each successive bond passage, California’s fiscal situation worsens,” said Ed Ring, executive director of the California Policy Center, who co-wrote the report. “Propped up by dark money, complexity and a political-industrial-financial complex, these bonds are passed off as free money ‘for the kids.’ But they are little more than massive fiscal obligations, meaning the only thing ‘for the kids’ is the massive tax bill that awaits.”

The report urges state legislators to make campaign contribution reports related to bond measures more accessible to the public and to prohibit contractors and other potentially self-interested corporations from being involved in a bond’s passage.

Fresno Unified School District — the fourth-largest district in the state — is in the middle of a legal dispute with a local contractor who claims about $37 million in bond money was misused to build Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School. The case focuses on a no-bid contract and an alleged conflict of interest with Harris Construction. The district is pushing the case to the California Supreme Court and has defended its use of the leaseback contract in question, a method that has widely been used by school districts across the state.

Voters overwhelmingly passed Measure Q in 2010, providing Fresno Unified with about $280 million for school construction. Voters also approved Measure K in 2001, providing nearly $200 million. Other local school districts have had no problem passing bond measures in recent years, including Clovis Unified. More than 65% of the district’s voters approved $298 million for Measure A.

Karin Temple, chief operations officer for Fresno Unified, said without bond money, the district would not have been able to make much-needed upgrades to aging facilities in recent years and maybe more importantly: It wouldn’t be eligible for state funding. In order to receive state funding, schools have to provide a local matching amount.

Fresno Unified has received $192 million in state funding over the past decade thanks to Measure Q and Measure K, Temple said.

“It’s something that’s been very important to us. We wouldn’t have been able to leverage the state funding without it. Districts that don’t have the local money don’t have a way to get state money,” Temple said. “It’s money that is raised locally and we have complete control over it. The state can’t touch those dollars. It’s important, too, for people to realize that local bond dollars stay right here — we’re committed to keeping that money local.”

About 90% of Fresno Unified’s bond dollars go to local contractors for projects, Temple said.

Fresno Unified provides updates on bond-funded projects quarterly, even though state law only requires it once a year. Outside accountants are hired to ensure all bond dollars are spent on bond projects, Temple said.

“We report on every single bond dollar that’s been spent. We’re as accountable and transparent as we can be,” she said. “There’s no secret at how that money’s being spent. We spend bond dollars as we understand the public has asked us to.”

California voters could be asked next year to approve an additional statewide bond measure that would allow the state to borrow $9 billion for K-12 and community college facilities. Gov. Jerry Brown has fought against the measure, calling for change in how state and local governments fund school construction.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

Largest local school bonds passed since Prop 39

Fresno Unified, $280 million in 2010

Fresno Unified, $199 million in 2001

Clovis Unified, $298 million in 2012

Clovis Unified, $168 million in 2004

Central Unified, $152 million in 2008

State Center Community College District, $161 million in 2002