In 2008, local voters approved $2.1 billion in bonds for the San Diego Unified School District. In 2012, district voters approved an additional $2.8 billion in bonds. Now, with Proposition YY, the school board is seeking $3.5 billion more in bonds, to be paid off over 39 years with a property tax hike equal to $300 a year for a lot with a $500,000 valuation.
The school district — California’s second largest with more than 130,000 students — has a backlog of needs when it comes to infrastructure and major repairs. But it also has a very related backlog of needs with its financial management.
Of the 10 local school bonds evaluated in its election guide, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association only opposed Proposition YY and one other. The association’s analysis of Proposition YY notes that many of the projects it promises to accomplish “have been or were scheduled to be covered by bond measures passed by voters in the past.”
Yet there’s an even stronger case to be made against Proposition YY that goes beyond this valid complaint. It’s that the bond is meant to prop up a district whose finances are shaky and getting worse.
Consider the district’s own analysis of the condition of its facilities. It shows relatively little progress was made from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2017, which district officials blame on inadequate state funding leading to infrastructure deterioration.
An alternative explanation is that for at least a decade, district leaders have ducked making the tough decisions that could have freed up funds for basic maintenance. They’ve authorized pay raises that go beyond the “step” increases that many teachers automatically receive for years on the job. They’ve also continued to pay the entire premium for expensive health insurance instead of creating an incentive for employees to choose cheaper plans by having them pay for part of the premium.
The result of the choices made by San Diego Unified leaders is a general fund budget in which as much as 90 percent of annual spending goes to employee compensation. In 2013, a state Senate report detailing the district’s improper diversion of $4.5 million in federal subsidies for school lunches quoted a former district finance official as admitting it was part of an effort “to provide relief for the general fund, wherever and whenever possible.”
It doesn’t take much sleuthing to determine that this effort includes using bond funds that at least in theory are supposed to be used for long-term capital improvements — thus justifying paying bonds back over 30 years or more. Among the improvements that Proposition YY would pay for are fire alarms, lighting, fencing, short-lived student computing devices and minor repairs of fixtures and other district property. This is legal under loosened state bond rules. But is this sensible? No way.
Meanwhile, the internal pressure to “provide relief for the general fund” is only going to grow as the district’s mandatory teacher pension contributions go up again in both 2019-20 and 2020-21. That means the district is likely to shift even more of the costs of current school district services and needs to future taxpayers. Call this what it is: a petty scam.
The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board recommends a no vote on Proposition YY.