By Ricardo Cano, CALmatters
Election results may still be in flux throughout California, but on school spending, one trend is clear: Once again, voters appear to have given a hearty thumbs up to borrowing for local school improvements, with nearly $12 billion in new bond measures on track to being approved.
About 80 percent of the local bond measures on the Nov. 6 ballot — 83 out of 105 — appear headed by toward approval, according to preliminary election results compiled by Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser for the League of California Cities.
Voters also appear to have approved harder-to-pass parcel taxes, which pay for classroom-related expenditures, in seven out of 12 school districts. A handful of measures remain close calls, so the projected outcomes in some ballot measures could change.
The volume of school finance measures on the ballot speaks to the ongoing need and popularity among school districts of using local bonds to pay for school facility construction and renovation, particularly as operating budgets are squeezed by payroll and pension obligations.
Districts with bond measures on the ballot told voters they planned to use the money to fix leaky roofs and repair aging classrooms and heating and cooling units. More than half of the bond measures on this ballot intended to pay for efforts to improve school safety and security systems in wake of a mass shooting earlier this year in Parkland, Fla.
Local bond measures are heavily reliant on local property values. And since a change in state law made bond measures easier to pass two decades ago, the explosion of borrowing requests on local ballots has exposed a wide variance in districts’ ability to organize their communities behind bond measures. That variance has translated into a gaping disparity in funding across school districts.
A CALmatters analysis published before Tuesday’s election found that the state’s wealthiest school districts averaged more than twice as many local bond dollars per student since 1998 than California’s poorest districts. Hundreds of school districts, many of them small and rural, have not passed a bond in 20 years.
The funding disparities remained glaring in Tuesday’s election.
San Diego Unified School District — which, with 126,000 students, is the state’s second-largest school district passed a $3.5 billion bond, the largest bond amount on the ballot this election, increasing the district’s total amount of local bonds since 1998 to $78,402 per student.
Stone Corral School District in Tulare County had the smallest bond on the general-election ballot to pass: $750,000. The small district — in which 92 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch--increased its total 20-year bond amount to $2,367 per student.
Lowell Joint School District in Whittier apparently passed its first bond since 1998, which the district said it was in desperate need of because “all of our schools were built more than 50 years ago and desperately need repairs and upgrades. The district’s $48 million bond is intended to repair termite damage, dry rot and deteriorating roofs in its six schools.
Many schools also said they planned to use their local bond money to get matching money from the state through Proposition 51, a statewide $9 billion bond voters passed in 2016. The state’s school bond program distributes matching funds to schools based on a first-come, first-served basis.
But schools have been complaining for months about the slow pace in which the state has released Prop. 51 money, and now one of the groups that lobbied to get the statewide bond passed is suing the state.
The Coalition for Adequate School Housing in a press release this week said “the state chose to shortchange the students in the school districts that have been waiting almost six years for their state match funding.”
Several critics of the state’s bond system say it leaves out poorer schools that don’t have the local bonding capacity to maximize the matching dollars they receive and favors larger, wealthier districts that have the staff to pursue the competitive funds.
The passing rates for bond measures in this election line up with what we’ve seen in recent years: 86 percent of local school bond measures have passed since 2012, totaling more than $45 billion since 2012.
School districts began to introduce significantly more bond proposals to their voters following a 2000 law that lowered the approval threshold for most bonds from two-thirds of the vote to 55 percent.
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