Caveat emptor (buyer beware): Taxpaying buyers of the undisclosed Prop CC ‘projects’ must have been aware
As a parent of two young children in the Del Mar Union School District, I have been greatly conflicted about my personal voting choice and the outcome of the Prop CC measure intending to raise $76.8 million in funds for miscellaneous general and yet undefined projects. It is not hard to grasp and feel the pain how DMUSD needs to ease general fund deficiencies by finding new revenue sources. However, voters are getting wiser about bond measures such as Prop CC which partly explains why it failed. Forty years of property taxes under Prop CC was not so much about “projects” as it was a means to simply fill a budget gap.
In reading the language of the Prop CC measure I found that there was nothing specific or imminent about any stated “listed project” that warranted 40 years of increased property tax payments. From a “needs assessment” point of view, it simply represented a desire of the DMUSD to supplant general fund maintenance and operation costs with a new tax revenue stream so it could shift general funds to education, administration and teachers’ salaries. While a noble cause for addressing budget constraints and raising new revenue, it is not one that meets the intent and purposes of a Prop 39 school funds ballot measure.
Up front, I must admit a personal bias against Prop 39 school bond voter measures such as Prop CC. This is because school districts across the state are using this special Constitutional provision to irrevocably commit many billions of dollars in new long-term tax servitudes in an improper manner.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Voters’ willingness in passing Prop 39 to relax the ordinary two-thirds required passage rate for new taxes to 55 percent came with very strict requirements. What is required under the confines of a relaxed 55 percent majority vote is a predetermined and succinct “project list” arising from study of a multi-year needs assessments and implementation plan for school facilities. California voters approved Prop 39 amending the State Constitution and causing enactment of the “Strict Accountability in Local School Construction Bond Act of 2000” to allow schools to get particular identified facilities or projects addressed (e.g., a new gymnasium or renovated building). Voters did not contemplate that relaxed voter pass rates would be regularly used as an open-ended discretionary new funding source for school-wide facilities and infrastructure. However, this is how most school districts utilize Prop 39 today.
My awareness of Prop 39 bond measure abuses arise from my involvement in a lawsuit whereby my client (Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending) sued the San Diego Unified School District on the principal basis that its Prop 39 bond measure in 2008 (Prop S) did not list any projects to construct stadium lighting systems in school stadiums throughout the city. SDUSD proclaimed that its “San Diego School Repair and Safety Measure” would primarily be used to repair and update outdated facilities, as well as provide ADA improvements for its athletic facilities. Now on appeal, SDUSD argues to the courts that the words “field lighting” in boilerplate language regarding allowable costs, “incidental and necessary for construction of the listed projects,” as found on the second-to-last page of the 97-page ballot measure intended stadium lighting “projects” for all schools. The lunacy arising from this interpretation suggests that voters gave approval for using the restricted Prop 39 taxpayer funds for anything, as long as it is not used for administration, teachers’ salaries, or other educational programs.
Voters are beginning to catch-on and reject the current expanding trend of school districts using open-ended facility improvement bond measures as a disguised means to simply raise revenue for such discretionary spending. School districts such as DMUSD with fairly modernized facilities need to regroup and rethink promoting bond measures after this defeat and decide how to garner public support for new and legitimate revenue streams. My preference for current financially hampered districts such as DMUSD is to have them more directly and honestly request voters enact an ordinary two-thirds approved measure to boost funding needs for a short-term number of financially lean years. Recognizing such need, the public may be more willing to impose new taxes on themselves. If that doesn’t work, pick a few new or replacement buildings or facilities that need special attention. Voters will be able to connect with these and evaluate the legitimacy of approving the same.
But for now, taxpayers are becoming more aware of school districts’ incorrect use of these Prop 39 measures. I applaud DMUSD trustee Doug Perkins, educational writer Marsha Sutton, and others who objected and/or reported the realities of how and why Prop CC was improperly constructed. Unless the abuses of Prop 39 tax measures get cured soon, we should continue to expect voter reticence and rejections on election day.
Craig Sherman is Carmel Valley resident and attorney who represents clients in administrative law, environmental, and property matters. He can be reached at Shermanlaw@aol.com.
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