Money Struggles Force California Schools to Turn to Bonds

In order to close their budget gaps, more and more California schools are turning to their local communities in an effort to raise funds. A growing number of districts have either implemented or asked their communities to approve municipal bond issues in order to finance infrastructure improvements, technology upgrades or even cover operating costs. On June 5th, schools all over the state are asking for approval to issue bonds in the total amount of $2.67 billion. Further bond issues are likely to appear on the November ballot as well.

The political climate facing these proposals is not very friendly, partially out of taxpayer frustration and partially because of general economic malaise. It doesn’t help that these questions will be competing on the ballot with two tax hike initiatives put there by Sacramento. The November ballot will also give voters an opportunity to decide on a rise in sales tax in order to raise revenue that the state likewise plans to spend on education.

“At some point, the voters might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of taxes that they are seeing on the ballot,” Kline said.

Superintendent Kevin Monsma of Pollock Pines said his district targeted next month’s ballot for that very reason. “June was an opportunity,” he said. “We were concerned about overwhelming the voter. You get so many initiatives that sometimes they say, ‘I will vote no on everything.’ “

David Kline, speaking for the California Taxpayers Association, says one of the factors that might contribute to the bonds’ defeat is the general mistrust by the taxpayers that education officials will spend the money, which will come from fees assessed on top of the regular property taxes, in the best possible way. To allay these concerns, many school districts are asking to issue general obligation bonds which also come with a requirement of setting up an oversight committee to monitor where the money is going.

But officials at the California Taxpayers Association said that oversight committees are overrated. “We have anecdotal information that the committees aren’t very effective,” Kline said. “Sometimes they have trouble finding people to serve.”

Judging by the recent history of bond initiative ballots, approval by California residents is far from a foregone conclusion. More than a quarter of the bonds voted on in the past few years failed to pass, according to tracking website run by Michael Coleman. Sacramento voters have proven to be particularly resistant on this question, rejecting 6 of the last 10 bond initiatives on election day.