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Viewpoint: Schools hustle to exploit new bond rules

January 08, 2002

Like a fast stream that's suddenly loosed from behind a strong dam, school construction bond issues have poured onto local ballots around California all through the last year. The flow will reach flood time in the March 5 primary election.

The gates opened when voters 14 months ago passed Proposition 39, which cut the required majority for passage of most construction bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent. Under the old standard, based on an archaic 19th century law and reinforced by the 1978 Proposition 13, hundreds of putative bond issues failed when they fell only slightly short of the two-thirds mark.

They lost, but they'd pass under today's rules.

The first evidence that school boards would be quick to use the new standard came last spring, when more than 86 percent of all bond issues on the ballot passed — and half of those passing had majorities in the 55 percent to two-thirds range.

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Last November, when many cities and counties staged local elections, all 32 school bond measures up for a vote were winners.

So it's no surprise even more districts are lined up to place bond issues before their voters this year. More than 55 have qualified for the March vote, worth a total of more than $5 billion.

"It's kind of open season now," Reed Royalty, president of the Orange County Taxpayers Association, told a reporter.

His group opposed Proposition 39, insisting that whenever there's dire need for school construction, bonds win the two-thirds majority they formerly needed. Administrators, teachers and many parents and students disagreed, citing many examples of dilapidated schools going without repairs or replacement for many years, as voters kept turning down bond issues, often by narrow margins.

Over the last 23 years, more than 70 percent of all school bond issues that failed drew support in the 55 percent to 67 percent range. In some cases, bonds fell just three or four votes short of the two-thirds threshold.

Those figures don't surprise anyone involved with school bonding.

"There's never been any doubt that education is really the highest priority of most California voters, because they understand that if we don't have an effective public school system, that impacts everybody," Bill Hauck, chairman of a major Proposition 39 sponsor, California Business for Education Excellence, told a reporter.

"It is Fat City for the big spenders right now," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "But it may not last."

Coupal predicts a kind of sticker shock for many property owners when they open their tax bills next fall and see large increases earmarked to repay the bonds.

"In some local elections, as few as 10 percent of all property owners have voted," he said. "Many will not be happy when they see the consequences."

Easier passage of school construction bonds also leaves open some issues of fundamental fairness. For one, to raise the same amount of bond money, tax rates must climb much more in places like Corona and Moreno Valley than in Beverly Hills and Palo Alto. Taxpayers who can afford increases the least may be hit the hardest, Coupal says.

"That's one reason we've always supported statewide financing of education," Coupal said. "That way, everybody pays."

Where landlords and other property owners can pass tax increases along to renters, there's also a potential inequity. This arises when nearby properties are identical or very similar, with some in a district that has just passed a bond issue and others in ones that have not. Competitive pressures may force the landlords with newly raised tax bills to eat the cost and lower their profit. Is that fair?

The upshot is that for now, passage of school bonds has become much easier than it's been for more than 100 years. But school districts would be advised to seek more money only when they really have need, for all it takes to change things back to the old two-thirds standard is a large body of disgruntled taxpayers.

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