Yes, I guess I’ll vote for Measure D in WCCUSD (West Contra Costa Unified School District) to raise property taxes by about $48/$10K of assessed valuation in order to pay for a 5th round of construction bonds (the other four are still being paid off through property taxes) for everything and nothing connected with buildings in WCCUSD. You can see the measure and arguments here on the Smart Voter site, including a project list that reads like a surreal novel:

Tax Impact on District

Dan Borenstein from the Contra Costa Times has already spelled out the big burden of debt that the school district is trying to add on to in:

Pay particular attention to the PDF at the end that spells out all the details for the debt repayment schedule. (And remember, this doesn’t even count the Marks era debts we are still paying off on the operations side.)

Tax Impact on Me

Here is what the impact would be on my property tax bill (click image to expand):

Right now, I pay $700/yr. in percentage-based property taxes for 4 school construction bonds. This measure would bump this up about 25% to about $900. Throw in an existing parcel tax of  $107/yr. and the MRAD assessment of $72/yr. and that pushes me up to $1,000/yr., above and beyond the regular property taxes and State taxes that go to the schools now. As a middle-class double-income family relatively unscathed by the almost-Depression, this makes a dent, but we can manage. I worry though about even a small impact like this on families closer to the edge. Ultimately, I feel I have a lot of trouble voting against education even if the connection is more indirect than I want it to be.

I’m not the only one who feels torn by this. The Contra Costa Times endorsed the measure in a strange split fashion: yes, but, and then back to yes.

So what annoys me so much about this?

Management of Bond Funds

Part of my concern is an ongoing concern about how the bond money is thrown around so freely with the idea that new needs or strategically not-done needs can always be added to push a new bond measure. The most egregious recent example of bad decision-making is the decision to rebuild Portola Middle School for $70 million on the small Castro Elementary site for, at most, 600 students, instead of using the Adams Middle School site that could be seismically retrofitted for $12 million and house up to 1100 students. Along with being wasteful of bond money (even with the decline in construction costs), it violates WCCUSD’s own size guidelines for schools (BP5116 – login: WCCUSD, password: Public).

But, this part is really a leadership issue. We need a Board that focuses its efforts on the kids and less on being a political player in managing its construction program.

The Big Switch

The fundamental reason I am irritated at this bond measure is that no one asked for it. I want to pay an extra $185.99/yr. for actual school operations (like…teaching), not for Charles Ramsey’s friends in the construction industry. How did we end up this way?

All through last year, the Board agonized over having to take cuts out of our employees and everyone else, because of less revenues. For teachers, this included a legally imposed contract in July and then a de facto imposed contract in December involving major concessions. Board members spent a lot of time, in between imposing cuts, musing about how we need “local revenue” to replace shortfalls in State funds for operating schools.

OK. Let’s do it. In May 2009, the process started. Here is a timeline with links to minutes.

Meeting DateDecision
May 20, 2009(Discussion G.1: Possible Parcel Tax)
The Board is talking about a parcel tax here, not a bond measure.
June 24, 2009(Action F.6: Exploration of Local Funding Options)
No mention of a bond here, just the parcel tax and a Richmond local measure for keeping schools open. A "Parcel Tax Committee" is appointed to look for a "parcel tax consultant."
September 2, 2009(Action F.3: Community Survey on Revenue Enhancement Measures)
A survey is approved for a parcel tax "as well as to consider another bond measure." What a difference a few months make. Note the vague subject. No discussion anywhere of a need for a bond.
December 9, 2009(Discussion G.1: Community Survey Report)
It turns out a 55% bond is more likely to pass compared to a 2/3 parcel tax according to Godbe's survey.
January 6, 2010(Action F.2: Survey Report)
The switch to a bond is finalized. $50,000 for a consultant and a new survey.

So, a Parcel Tax Committee that (to my knowledge) never announced any of its meetings or reported under the Committee Reports section of a board meeting ends up producing something that is not a parcel tax or anything like it.

[Update (April 23d, 2011): The school district redid its Web site a couple of weeks ago, and the links to the minutes were broken. I’ve fixed this for this table.]

Effect on Ever Passing a Parcel Tax

On its face, it’s hard to believe that this bond measure can be of any help to any attempt to pass a future parcel tax whether it passes or not. If it doesn’t pass, opposition will have been galvanized. If it does pass, voters will be more likely to feel tapped out by the time a parcel tax measure is out.

To be fair, there is another tactical side to this especially in case of a win. First, an organization exists for campaigning that’s all warmed up. Second, the halt to increasing class sizes in K-3 passed by the school board only lasts for one year creating a deadline to pass a relief measure. Third, there’s the “leftover” factor. To talk about this let’s turn to the PAC.

For the Children of West County

For years there has been a general-purpose PAC called For the Children of West County(FCWC) in WCCUSD. This has been the funding source for all recent parcel tax and bond measures in WCCUSD. The contributors are the usual suspects for a bond campaign: construction companies, construction unions, architects, bond attorneys, etc. This is what I call the Ramsey Bundle, because this money seems to go just where Charles Ramsey would like it to go in WCCUSD whether to FCWC or particular candidates. The interesting thing to remember about FCWC is that it’s money that can be used for bond or parcel tax campaigns.

Here is a link to the scanned disclosure forms for FCWC:

http://drop.io/qli7sxm
[Update (April 23d, 2011): drop.io went out of business, so I’ll have to set up another link.]

As of May 22, $360,000 was raised. You can look through these 460s to see who has contributed and how much. (Theresa Harrington of the Contra Costa Times did a recent blog post along these lines for bond measure C in the Mount Diablo USD.) What stood out to me was on page 3 of the second filing:

Ending balance: $217,455

Of course, there can be a lot of late bills and last-minute expenditures, but that’s still a lot of money. Even at half, that’s $100,000, a nice nest egg for starting up a parcel tax campaign.

So, even though I still don’t agree with it, the plan among the FCWC people might be to run a bond campaign first just to raise money for a parcel tax campaign later. We’ll just have to see the first post-election filing.

Appendix

Excerpts from “Contra Costa Times editorial: Yes on Measure D for West Contra Costa schools – ContraCostaTimes.com,” n.d., http://www.contracostatimes.com/search/ci_14838169.

Yes,

WEST CONTRA Costa school officials are going back to the well for the fifth time since 1998, asking district voters to approve yet another bond measure for school construction.

Admitting that they grossly underestimated the cost of rebuilding and refurbishing the dilapidated schools throughout the district, they are asking voters for authority to issue another $380 million in bonds. This is on top of the $890 million voters have already authorized, bringing the total to nearly $1.3 billion.

While we have serious concerns about the mounting costs of the reconstruction project, we recognize the district’s facilities were in desperate need of upgrade and we are impressed by the new and refurbished schools we have seen so far. It’s been a painful learning curve for district officials, but they seem to be on a roll toward rebuilding the schools.

Whereas construction costs were rising rapidly during the early stages of the program, they are now declining, providing the district with an opportunity to maximize taxpayer dollars. Having come this far, it would be a shame to cut off the program and divide the district into communities of haves and have nots — neighborhoods with new schools and neighborhoods with crumbling buildings.

For that reason, we urge voters to approve Measure D on the June 8 ballot. The measure requires 55 percent approval for passage. It’s a long-term investment in the school system, which serves about 30,000 students from Richmond to Hercules.

But.

But we issue a warning to school officials: This needs to be the last time. We’ve heard promises in past bond campaigns that no more money would be needed. We’re hearing it again this time. Our response: Make it work. Don’t come back again for more.

And we have warnings for the voters: This isn’t free money. Bonds must be repaid by taxes on properties. That means that if you own a home or other property in the district, you will be paying for part of the reconstruction. You should fully understand how much the district bonds are going to cost you before you cast your ballot.

Unfortunately, district officials have not been fully forthcoming in the ballot arguments for Measure D. They tell us that the annual cost of paying off the Measure D bonds will be no more than $48 per $100,000 assessed valuation. But that’s only the latest measure. Add up the payments on all five of the school construction bond measures, and the price each year will reach about $240 per $100,000 assessed valuation.

What does that mean? If you own a house that’s assessed at $200,000, you’ll pay up to $480 a year. If you own a house that’s assessed at $500,000, the price will reach about $1,200 a year. It could be more if district projections about the real estate market, which have been faulty in the past, turn out to be wrong again. If the market fails to recover, the tax rate will be even higher.

The annual payments, while expected to eventually decline, could stretch for up to 40 years. The district is taking on a huge mortgage. You’ll have part of the responsibility for repaying it. Like most mortgages, the interest costs will exceed the principal.

The $1.3 billion loan will eventually cost about $3 billion when the interest is added in. Unfortunately, none of those disclosures are a part of ballot explanation of Measure D.

Oh, and by the Way, Yes.

We’re not trying to scare you away from supporting Measure D. We want you to vote for it. But we feel that you need to do so with a full understanding of what you’re taking on.

Updated once at 6:30pm.