Five reasons to oppose the Del Mar school bond
By Marsha Sutton
Proposition CC, a $76.8 million General Obligation bond measure sponsored by the Del Mar Union School District, asks homeowners on Nov. 6 to approve taxing themselves $8.44 per $100,000 of property value annually.
According to the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, the DMUSD proposes to issue the bond in five phases – in 2013, 2018, 2023, 2028 and 2033. The total debt service is expected to be paid off in 2058.
It’s costing the DMUSD about $13,140, according to the Registrar of Voters, to place Proposition CC on the November ballot.
Under the terms of a GO bond, the money can only be used for capital improvements and facilities needs. The measure requires 55 percent approval to pass.
Although there are more, here are five reasons to oppose this bond.
The San Diego County Taxpayers Association opposes Proposition CC, noting this reason in its key findings: “District has stated intent to use bond to offset General Fund expenditures.”
In a letter to the editor published in this newspaper on Sept. 20, 2012, Suzanne Hall, co-chair of the Yes on CC campaign, said, “As Sacramento continues to turn down the tap on education funding, the DMUSD finds itself in the same hole than many other districts have already succumbed to: find an alternate source of funding or make cuts that impact the classroom.”
Hall also wrote, “Though the funds from our bonds cannot and will not be directly applied to the salaries of the district staff, the money can take pressure off the general fund that pays for those classroom expenses.”
In a story in the Oct. 11 issue of this newspaper, Hall said the driving force behind the bond is that state funding has been on a consistent decline for several years.
“Another key component on the General Obligation bond,” DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg wrote in an email in August, “is to relieve/insulate the general fund of the school district.”
At the Sept. 19 school board meeting, McClurg, in a presentation to trustees on the initiative, again said the bond money could offset general fund expenses. As an example, she referenced $600,000 spent on school fencing that she said could have been funded by the bond but instead came out of the general fund.
It’s hard to decide whether to give the district credit for honesty (that they openly acknowledge an intent to use bond money to bolster the general fund) or condemnation for dishonesty (that doing this is illegal).
A General Obligation bond is not a wish-list for projects that would be nice to have, such as allocating $6 million for a special education preschool as the DMUSD plan states.
It’s also not for undefined problems that might happen in the future.
According to district figures, enrollment as of June 2012 was 4,401 and in September was 4,302 – 100 fewer students. Demographic studies show this trend continuing for a number of years. There is no shortage of seats in the district, which is currently experiencing declining enrollment.
Yet DMUSD board president Scott Wooden said in an interview in August that the bond money can help build a school in Pacific Highlands Ranch when a likely need is projected in 2018 to 2020.
“It’s going to be a long time before the state starts funding new schools again, and we’ll have to start looking at that in five to seven years,” he said.
Wooden also said some bond money would be set aside for improvements to newer schools “as they age over the next 20 to 30 years” – like Ocean Air which he said will eventually need a new roof. Ocean Air opened in 2007.
“When you look at the schools that are newer today, you will need to maintain those schools,” he said.
At the school district’s board meeting on Sept. 19, McClurg said of the bond money:
•The bond “will allow for money to do work long-range.”
•It is “impossible to say what the needs will be 15 to 20 years from now.”
•“A school [may not be] ready for work now but will be in 10 to 20 years.”
In its overall summary, the SDCTA offered this additional objection: “The district is proposing to use bond funds paid over the next four decades to support ongoing, short-term maintenance needs.”
The SDCTA noted that Sacramento “recently allowed school districts to allocate deferred maintenance funds to the general fund.” As a result, Del Mar eliminated funding for deferred maintenance in Fiscal Year 2011 through FY 2013.
A GO bond is not for possible future needs, items on a wish list, or regularly scheduled maintenance. Immediate, dire facilities needs and relief of existing overcrowding are acceptable uses.
A Jan. 11, 2010 District Advisory Committee report commissioned by the DMUSD found the following: “The schools in the DMUSD vary in age, from 45 to 2 years old, and all are in good repair and fully functional.”
With the exception of Carmel Del Mar, “all other schools are modern with no serious defects or deficiencies,” the DAC noted.
“The district proposes using long-term bonds to pay for student devices that will only last three to five years,” objects the SDCTA.
Other objections in the SDCTA review for Proposition CC include:
•“The [district’s] presentation includes reference to General Fund relief resulting from ‘teaching devices’ and ‘student devices’ paid for from the bond.”
• “The district plans to use bond funds to ‘purchase portable learning technology equipment.’”
Many districts, including San Diego Unified, have been harshly criticized for using taxpayer bond money to purchase devices with a limited lifespan. Del Mar Union’s program to buy personal technology qualifies for legitimate criticism on this point.
The DMUSD revealed its interest in a bond measure to surprised neighboring districts not until March 2012.
“This was not on anybody’s radar,” said San Dieguito Union High School District superintendent Ken Noah in May.
Contrast this with the approach taken by SDUHSD which is also asking voters to approve a GO bond this year.
SDUHSD transparently created a task force nearly four years ago to investigate the condition of its facilities and precisely specify the work needed, making sure along the way that the public was well-advised of the district’s aim to provide in-depth information to support a GO bond.
In Del Mar, there was no similar facilities task force and nothing leading up to its surprise announcement.
The claim by the DMUSD that its bond is based on a two-year strategic plan for facilities is not credible. Every school district has a facilities plan; serious work on what a bond measure entails is quite different and demands dedicated attention to details not generally covered in a strategic plan.
After surveying community members at the behest of the board on a 3-2 vote, the Dolinka Group financial consultants determined that about $8 per $100,000 was the optimal amount that at least 55 percent of voters would support.
But the way it’s supposed to work is that school districts identify a need first and then ask for funding – not grab a big pile of money, based on what consultants think voters will sit still for, and then figure out how to spend it.
Disturbingly, the three board members who voted with Wooden to place the bond measure on the ballot at the July board meeting did so without seeing any specific information on costs, projects or per-site improvements.
Wooden, who insisted on reviewing some specifics from staff before voting on the measure, said he was “disappointed” when the packet for the board’s July meeting lacked bond detail.
Board members are stewards of the public trust, and the public rightfully expects trustees to vet this information sufficiently and scrutinize these kinds of measures with careful analysis and due diligence, before presenting it before voters for approval.
In its analysis, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association weighed in on Del Mar’s apparent lack of preparation:
• “The technology component for each site has not been specifically outlined.”
• “Schedule regarding projects has not been provided.”
•“The project list that will be presented to voters does not identify the list of improvements by site.”
Lani Lutar, president of the SDCTA, said in an interview that Del Mar missed the deadline for submission to the SDCTA. Other school districts also missed the July 5 deadline, but each approached the SDCTA beforehand and explained why they would be late.
“We granted extensions for a few districts that requested more time early on, but in each of those instances, the school districts had requested meetings with us prior to the deadline and made their case for why they needed more time,” Lutar wrote in an email. “That is not true of Del Mar Union.”
Del Mar did little upfront preparation, threw together a hastily prepared package, and is now broadcasting “sky is falling” doomsday scenarios and expects taxpayers to go along quietly.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com
For a response to this column from Quality Del Mar Schools, Yes on CC, see Opinion section (below this column on main page) or visit:
Note from Marsha Sutton:DMUSD board member Kristin Gibson called to take issue with the following statement in this column: “Disturbingly, the three board members who voted with Wooden to place the bond measure on the ballot at the July board meeting did so without seeing any specific information on costs, projects or per-site improvements.”
In a conversation that was blessedly cordial and respectful, she said did see numbers specific and convincing enough back in March that allowed her to cast her vote intelligently in favor of placing the bond measure on the November ballot.
However, if details were available, it remains a mystery why DMUSD supt. Holly McClurg was unable or unwilling to provide specifics on the bond until mid-Sept. Nevertheless, Gibson says she performed due diligence before casting her vote, and we have no reason to doubt her.
In her email to me after our conversation, Gibson wrote, “I assume you and I will continue to have differing opinions, but what it seems we do agree on is that sharing those opinions with respect and with curiosity is ideal.”
Gibson engaged in one of the most respectful, open, civil conversations I can remember ever having with any board member, and for that I am very grateful.