Mystery Education Theater 3000

Month: November 2012

WCCUSD School Board Endorsements

It’s already election day, so what better time to explain my own endorsements in the race for WCCUSD school board. Maybe not. Consider this more of a confession than an endorsement at this point.

There are four candidates for two slots:

Randy Enos
Todd Groves
Antonio Medrano
Robert Studdiford

I’ve been pretty clear about my support for Todd for a while. He’s someone who is using his retirement to not just volunteer but to actually lead in bringing key concrete programs into schools. So far, it’s been the Writer Connection and a new middle school math initiative. I’ve always been impressed with his intelligence and interest in academic issues. He also has a great way of just ignoring divisiveness around him and just getting on with the business of serving student needs (a skill I could be better at). It would be good to have someone with his mind on the board. (He is 5 for 6 in main institutional endorsements.)

Enos and Medrano are kind of a toss-up for me for the other slot. Medrano seems more open to reform, but he’s too wedded to the construction program and endless bond measures. Enos is an ex-teacher and ex-principal who can bring that kind of perspective. He’s also a moderate person, so even in cases like charter schools, where he doesn’t really support them, he can be relied on to be fair. So, if I have to choose, I choose Enos.

Studdiford is the candidate I’ve known the longest, but also the one I rate the lowest. He is really unsuited to be in this position. He’s being cooler in the run-up to the election, but he has generally been immature, belligerent, and very them-vs.-us. I always get the feeling that he’s not quite all there. He’s also not that knowledgeable outside of school construction.

His major activities have been defending the construction program and supporting his hero, Charles Ramsey. This has turned into large donations from the interests he was supposed to be overseeing on the bond oversight committee (included the notorious Seville Group indicted for their activities in the Sweetwater district) and a lot of politician endorsements. This gives him a good chance. The only upside to his election would be a great increase in the entertainment value of board meetings.

Final Pre-election Campaign Finance Disclosures

As I discussed in my posting, Follow the Money for the WCCUSD Candidates, the County Elections Office has been pretty good about posting scans of the campaign finance filings. Unfortunately, their scanning system broke down last week and they can’t seem to fix it in time for the elections. Linda Ruiz-Lozito went down and got copies of the WCCUSD candidate files to scan at home. I’m posting them for her:

Randall Enos

Todd Groves

Antonio Medrano

Robert Studdiford

Vote No on Measure E: One Too Many WCCUSD Bond Measures

I’ve never voted against an education funding measure before even when I had to put a clothespin on my nose as I did for the the last bond measure just 2 years ago. I’m tired of being a sucker, so this time I’m actually voting no on measure E, the newest bond measure. (For an overview of the overall bond program, check out this posting.)

There Has to Be a Good Reason for It

Why? I think there should actually be a reason to pass what is ultimately another tax. The only reason for this bond measure is the extra likelihood that a 55% bond will pass in a presidential election with Obama on the ballot. That’s it. No need, just an electoral opportunity.

No Public Discussion of Need for Bond

I’m on the bond oversight committee, and I’ve attended many school board meetings. I’ve never been aware of any discussion about some compelling need for a new bond. This came out of the blue…at least for the public. After all, we just passed bond #5 for $380 million in 2010.

Need for Operational Funds

What has been endlessly discussed is the need for more funding of school operations, like reducing class sizes. Although we have a parcel tax for this, I don’t think it’s enough.

Classroom Funding versus Construction Funding

That’s why in July people at a school board public hearing at Harding pleaded for not going for another bond measure till an enhanced parcel tax could be passed this year or the next. This plea seemed to work as the school board voted for a parcel-tax-only survey, but then Charles Ramsey bought his own hurried survey (from the same company) and later dragooned the board into supporting his plan for a new bond and just an extension of the parcel tax beyond 2014. (This bond is almost a complete copy of the previous bond ballot language. After all, it worked the last time!) Anyway, an additional reason to vote against the bond measure is that it significantly decreases the chances of passing a parcel tax increase later if needed.

Time to Stop and Look Comprehensively at the WCCUSD Construction Program

Before passing another bond measure, people in the district need to step back and take a close look at our school construction plan outside of the electoral context considering these questions:

  1. Why isn’t there a real master plan? There is a nominal plan published in 2007, but nothing nominal or otherwise since. How can we spend all these millions without such a plan.
  2. Why are the project lists so disorganized and hard to follow? Part of the legitimacy of these bonds is the idea that voters know what they’re voting for and oversight committees and auditors have something concrete to use to evaluate bond expenditures. This hasn’t been the case for the last bond and the proposed new bond.
  3. Why do we pay so much more in school bond taxes than other communities including districts like Berkeley and Piedmont? Months ago, I did an analysis of the tax rates for Contra Costa and Northern Alameda. Although this was based on the tax rates available then, I don’t think the relative positions have changed that much.
  4. Schools that were to be closed have received a reprieve. Part of the marketing of the bond has been to redo these schools. The public needs a chance to look at all the extra net costs, both operational and construction, for keeping these schools open and then judge whether it’s worth it, given the complete cost picture from both sides.
  5. This is tied to the master plan, but it can be a separate question. When is this going to end? I don’t mean forever, but at least a respite of 10 or more years.


Overview of WCCUSD Bonds

In this post, I’d like to share some documents that describe our enormous construction bond program in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Three of the documents were submitted to the Contra Costa Times by WCCUSD and used in an editorial that came out against a new bond (and rightly so). Another one is a “Friday Memo” to the WCCUSD school board that includes information about the bond program.

How the Bonds Work

First let me sketch out how everything works in general. All of the bonds except the first are Prop. 39 bonds, so to simplify things I’ll assume the Prop. 39 rules apply to all.

The “AV”: Total Assessed Valuation

The West Contra Costa Unified School District is an area within Contra Costa County. In this area of the district are various private property lots. Each lot has an assessed value assigned by the County Tax Assessor. The most well-known limit on how the Assessor can set these valuations is Prop. 13. There are also exemptions that slightly reduce the valuation to a net assessed value. (Remember, the assessed value is just what you pay taxes on, not the market value of the house.) All these net assessed values within WCCUSD roll into the total “AV” for WCCUSD.

Bond Authorizations

A vote of 55% or more on a bond measure allows the school district to issue bonds up to a certain set amount based on a reasonable projection that the tax rate will not exceed a certain stated amount per $100,000 ($100K) of assessed valuation and that bond proceeds will be used for purposes defined in a project list. These bond authorizations are usually identified by the ballot letter from the election and sometimes by the election it was passed in. (The projected tax rate cannot exceed $60/$100K AV for Prop. 39 bonds.)

Bond Issuance

Based on a bond authorization, the school district issues one or more series of bonds on terms set in the issuance. These terms can be the standard one of pay-off-some-principal-with-the-interest like in most home mortgages. Or it can be a capital appreciation bond (CAB) where the payoff of principal (or even interest) doesn’t happen till later like a balloon mortgage. The pay-off period can’t exceed 40 years; otherwise, there aren’t any other direct legal controls on how a school district chooses to structure the debt.

The Debt Ceiling That Isn’t Much of a Ceiling

There is some constraint on how much a district can go into debt with these bonds. For a unified school district like ours the total amount of bonds of this type issued by the school district cannot exceed 2.5% of the “AV” (assessed valuation). However, this debt ceiling can be waived by the State Board of Education. The State Board has always granted a waiver to WCCUSD, so this taxpayer protection is essentially meaningless.

Taxing  People to Pay the Bond Debt

Now comes the fun part, taxing people to pay the debt from the bonds. Unlike State bonds that are paid back through State revenues, local bonds are paid off by individual taxpayers.

Once the district issues a bond series, the payment for the bond is out of it’s hands and the voters’ hands. Each year, the trustee for each bond issuance calculates the required debt service based on the terms of the bond issuance. The debt service for all of these bonds is rolled up together and then compared to the AV for that year in the district by the County. The County then simply calculates the property tax rate needed to service the debt and puts it in the tax bills. Afterward, the County sends the collected money directly to the bond trustees.

No Limit to the Tax Rate

There is no constraint on what this tax rate number can be. Taxpayers are absolutely liable for directly servicing the debt at whatever tax rate is required irrespective of any previous projections by the district.

The Documents

Friday Memo Discussing the Use of CABs

The Friday Memo is a weekly report by the Superintendent to the WCCUSD School Board. (The district doesn’t post these on the website, so they have to be obtained through a public records request…each time.) This Friday Memo points out that WCCUSD has used CABs for specific bond issuances, but doesn’t use them a lot. Instead, WCCUSD relies on continuously issuing new bond authorizations. By keeping at or below the projected tax rate for each separate bond authorization, the district can brag about it even though the total school bond tax rate increases as each new bond authorization passes. At the end of the memo, there is an interesting table describing each bond series under each bond authorization.

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WCCUSD History of Bond Authorizations

This is a more general summary by bond authorization of the information presented in the table at the end of the previous document (the Friday Memo).

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WCCUSD History of Assessed Valuations and Bond Tax Rates

These two pages show the last 20 years of AV growth in the district and the bond tax rates since it all started in 98/99 with Measure E 1998. While the actual tax rate info is correct, the use of the target tax rate in the second table is a bit disingenuous. Every bond is listed with its maximum tax rate and these are summed to make one aggregate maximum tax rate. This is misleading, because each bond is at its own point in life:

  1. Measure E 2012 hasn’t even passed yet. We’re not “saving” $48/$100K of AV. This is ridiculous.
  2. Measure D 2010 has a temporary dip this one year. Remember, only $100 million of the the $380 million in bond debt authorized has been issued yet.
  3. Measure E 1998 has never come close to the maximum tax rate. Perhaps as the first bond and as a bond in the tougher pre-Prop. 39 era, it was thought wise to underestimate the tax rate as a way to pass more bonds later based on the “good stewardship” shown by the district in the first bond.
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WCCUSD Debt Service and Tax Rate Projections

These projections include scenarios for different rates of AV growth. The projections also include the new bond measure as a breakout column.

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