Voters' Approval Predates Compton Unified : Schools Delay Tax Bite of '60s Bonds Until Late '87

Times Staff Writer

After winning a race to meet a legal deadline, Compton Unified School District officials unexpectedly put the brakes on $2.6 million worth of bond issues that would have immediately increased property taxes.

In a letter to county auditors last month, the officials rescinded a request to issue the bonds right away. Instead, they announced that they wanted to delay until December, so they could have more time to resolve some lingering questions.

Now, one school trustee is suggesting that the sudden postponement was politically motivated. Not only will the delay "squelch" what seemed to be a mounting public protest, Trustee John Steward charged, but the higher taxes triggered by the bonds won't have to be paid by property owners until late next year--about a month after three trustees stand for reelection.

Swell of Protest

"People were organizing, sending letters to the Board of Supervisors . . . contacting me," Steward said. "The protest was rising."

District Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough countered that the bond delay "has nothing to do with when people are running for office." In fact, he said, the delay means that the higher tax bills will be mailed to voters shortly before next fall's election in November, 1987.

As for any protest trend, Kimbrough said: "There was a small group of people that came to the board (meeting) and asked questions about it, that's normal. We have 30,000 people attending school here, and there may have been 20 people who came in. . . . It's difficult to say how legitimate it was and how political it was."

School board President Kelvin D. Filer also said the delay was necessary to clear up some legal questions about the bonds. "I don't believe in playing politics" with such matters, Filer said. "You just do what you think is right and move on."

Authorized 2 Decades Ago

The general obligation bonds are particularly controversial because they were approved by voters about 20 years ago, before the current unified school district was formed through a merger of the Enterprise City School District and the Compton Union High School District.

In 1962, Enterprise voters approved a $642,000 bond issue. And in 1968, voters in the Compton Union High School District passed a $2-million issue.

(Steward said a referendum on the Compton Union High School District bonds--for construction of a new school--failed in 1967 but passed the following year after officials decided that the proposed structure should be named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rather than Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.)

The two districts joined Compton Unified in 1970, however, without actually selling the bonds and raising the money. Both issues were all but forgotten over the intervening years until this summer, when Kimbrough was searching for ways to quickly raise money in the wake of a budget cut proposed by Gov. George Deukmejian that would have cost the district $3.8 million. (Part of the cut has since been restored.)

On July 22, Kimbrough proposed issuing the bonds. Steward objected along with two other trustees who are frequent critics of the superintendent. The trustees argued that a new referendum ought to be conducted because the bond debt would be paid by current property owners, not all of whom may have lived in the area when the measures originally passed.

But Steward and his colleagues were outvoted, 4 to 3. And the matter was forwarded to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for final approval, since only that agency has the authority to float local school bonds. About that time, a "significant number" of property owners began writing or telephoning 4th District Supervisor Deane Dana to complain about the threatened tax increase, according to Dana spokesman Dennis Morefield.

A county legal review was hurried along, so the new taxes--an assessment of about $38 for every $80,000 in property value over the next two years--would be included on the assessor's September rolls.

Clifford A. Mansfield, county accounting chief, said the supervisors couldn't act before the legality of the bonds had been determined. That approval came on Aug. 13.

Louis S. Gordon, principal deputy county counsel, ruled that property owners districtwide could be assessed for the $2-million Compton Union High School District bonds because the current and the former school systems have identical boundaries. But only those property owners within the old Enterprise boundaries--covering about 17% of the unified district--would be liable for the $642,000 issue as well, the lawyer declared.

Kimbrough said that was one of the points that caused school officials to pause. "Obviously we would not impose such a heavy taxation" on Enterprise property owners, since the bond money would likely be used districtwide.

On Aug. 22, Compton school officials halted the process. "Because certain legal issues are still unresolved as of this date," the officials wrote, the bond issues would be postponed until after Dec. 1.

"There are a couple of things that have to be looked into," said Melanie Lomax, school district legal adviser. "One of them dealt with the repayment of the bond issues, the other dealt with what the projects would be, how the proceeds (on the bonds) would be used."

Although special bond attorneys and investment underwriters are yet to settle those points, Lomax said, "both projects are still on track and there has been no departure" from the district's commitment to issue the bonds and keep taxes uniform.

Assuming that school officials follow through and issue the bonds after Dec. 1, 1986, county accountant Mansfield said, the higher tax bills won't be sent to property owners until about Nov. 1, 1987. On Nov. 3, Trustees Mary B. Henry and Lynn V. Dymally--both backers of Kimbrough--are due to face voters along with Trustee Bernice Woods.

Because many property owners don't pay their taxes until the annual Dec. 10, delinquent date nears in 1987, Mansfield noted, some "might not even be aware of (a tax increase in their bills) in early November. . . . They might not even look at it."

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