Education Matters: Bonds that bind

At the Oct. 8 Solana Beach School District board meeting, trustees unanimously approved a not-to-exceed contract for $68,000 with marketing strategist Tom Shepard of Public Policy Strategies.

The purpose, according to the board packet, is to “provide election opinion, community outreach and polling for consideration of a district General Obligation bond.”

“This contract will be to conduct a community opinion survey in order to understand community sentiment related to projects, tax, and terms associated with a 2016 General Obligation bond,” it reads.

The district, operating seven elementary schools, has long been making noises about placing a GO bond on the 2016 ballot, which requires 55 percent voter approval.

SBSD has hired a law firm to provide legal advice on the potential bond measure.

And, according to an article published last week in this newspaper, plans from four architectural firms have already been received and are under review, for work on several district schools.

San Dieguito Union High School District passed a GO bond measure, Proposition AA, in 2012, but with support barely over the 55 percent mark.

In some kind of domino effect, the Del Mar Union School District also seems to have been inspired by San Dieguito’s success and is likely to try again (after failing before) to pass a GO bond in 2016 as well.

Property owners in Solana Beach and Del Mar, both part of San Dieguito, are already being charged annually up to $30 per $100,000 of assessed property value through Prop. AA for the next umpteen years.

If bond measures pass for these elementary school districts, property owners will pay extra taxes on top of the San Dieguito assessment.

Solana Beach and Del Mar are two of the most affluent communities in the county, if not the state, and each has independent foundations that raise even more money for their schools through charitable contributions.

It’s not like local schools don’t already get huge sums of money through the county’s property taxes.

According to the county tax assessor’s office, for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, 42.9 percent of individual property taxes paid went to schools. That’s the highest piece of the pie chart by far than any other recipient. The next nearest is the county, which gets 13.2 percent, and cities, which receive 12.6 percent.

Pre-determined outcome

Was there ever a time when a marketing firm hired to discover if the public would support a bond measure came back with a “no” answer?

Solana Beach wants the bond and has made that clear, and the district is paying a polling firm a lot of taxpayer money to come back with the right answer. The outcome seems pre-determined.

About 300 people will be polled now through November, with results available in December.

We’ve seen in the past that questions can be coyly phrased to elicit the “correct” responses, calling lists can be manipulated, calls can be timed to affect the outcome, and the interpretation of results can be far from neutral.

One task of the pollsters is to see just how much voters would sit still for: “Would you support $20 per $100,000 of assessed property value? Ten dollars? Five? For how many years? Twenty? Thirty?”

Eventually, those polled are worn down, and pollsters will settle on a number they can report to the school board that voters would tolerate.

One piece of information it’s doubtful will be shared by the polling firm when calling targeted people is the amount of money already in SBSD’s reserves.

According to SBSD Superintendent Terry Decker and Carlos Estrella, assistant superintendent for business services, the district holds $17,630,068, or 43.75 percent of its total budget, in reserves.

The state requires 3 percent, which for SBSD is $1,209,242. Then, the school board has designated a Basic Aid contingency reserve on top of the state’s mandated one, which the board has set at 40.75 percent, or $16,420,826 this year.

“Those funds are designated to protect the district from uncertainty created by the state and the economy, and to cover any operational deficits,” Decker said.

Reserves at the Del Mar Union School District currently are $11,328,694. That’s 23 percent of the district’s budget, according to Cathy Birks, DMUSD’s assistant superintendent for business services.

Although Solana Beach’s rainy day funds are almost twice Del Mar’s, both are considered exceedingly healthy reserves.

Gather facts

Voters in Solana Beach and Del Mar will likely be presented with bond initiatives on their 2016 ballots. And aggressive marketing campaigns will push for passage.

Because the system permits large donations to support these measures, what happened in San Dieguito is sure to happen in Solana Beach and Del Mar.

In San Dieguito, as in most other districts with GO bonds on the ballot, major construction, architectural and support firms donated vast amounts of money to marketing efforts that “educate” voters, in order to promote passage.

Knowing they are likely to get the business once the bonds pass, those firms have found these donations to be a good investment indeed.

Strong test scores and high achievement for students in both districts, by the way, would seem to indicate that kids are unaffected by one school being prettier than another.

Property owners should gather all the facts before deciding whether to approve more local taxation.

On another subject, parents in the Solana Beach School District need to know that the money they purchase for their children’s “lunch card” is refundable or can be transferred to another child if unused.

SBSD uses the MySchoolBucks system, which allows parents to set up an account for school meals. The account is debited when the student purchases a meal.

SBSD Supt. Decker said the system is owned and operated by MySchoolBucks, and the district does not control or monitor the money in the accounts. Parents, he said, can access and view account balances through

Because there’s been some confusion about what happens to this money when a child does not use all the money on the card or leaves the district, Decker provided clarification.

“When a student leaves the district, the parent determines what they want to have happen with the funds in the account,” Decker wrote in an email.

“The parent may transfer funds to another child if they have other students in the system, or they can get a refund,” he said, but the money is never transferred to the district.

“The funds simply stay in the account,” he said, adding that the district can only debit the account for meals and can facilitate refunds or transfers when requested.

Decker said there is no time limit on getting refunds, noting that people have come back four years later for refunds.

“Other than needing our help with refunds, the parent is in control of the account,” he said.

For a refund or transfer of funds, parents need to contact the district directly. The district does not contact parents asking what to do with leftover lunch-card money.

“Parents can set up e-mail notifications in the system to assist with account management,” Decker said.

The inquiry prompted Decker to say he will “push up our communications” to notify parents about leftover money in their accounts.

“We’re going to add information to our district website to explain the process of requesting a transfer or refund,” he said. “We’re also looking to add something to our end-of-year communications to remind parents to check their accounts if they are leaving the district.”

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at