The Devil in the Details of the Biggest School Bond Issue

The $9.2-billion school bond on the November ballot will be the biggest in the history of California. But it won't solve the perennial problem of who pays for new schools. In a way, it only highlights one of the most pressing political questions in the state: Who will foot the bill for building the communities to accommodate California's expanding population?

Gigantic as it is, the school bond will probably cover only about half the cost of new schools needed in the next 10 years. The heated politics behind the placement of the bond on the ballot chiefly concerned who will pay the other half: developers or local taxpayers.

For the last decade, developers have grudgingly served as "financiers of last resort" for school construction. But if the school bond passes, the balance of power will shift. Developers, who prevailed in the Legislature this year, will pay less, and local taxpayers will pay more. Along the way, the power of cities and counties to deny or restrict new development based on school overcrowding will be curtailed for at least eight years until the $9.2 billion is used up.

In other words, hidden beneath the seemingly innocuous request of billions for schools is a major shift in local planning policy. Since developers will pay lower school-construction fees, they might be able to sell some houses for a few thousand dollars less than otherwise. But with more state and local bonds used to finance schools, then roads, sewers and other community facilities might go begging. Local governments, furthermore, will have less flexibility to match new development to the available community infrastructure. In short, local citizens have been reminded again that power politics in Sacramento often shape their communities more than what goes on at the weekly meeting of the local city council or school board.

The school deal contains many long-overdue reforms, including incentives to contain the cost of new school construction and, especially, to encourage local school districts to raise more money through local bond issues. But it also shows how hard it is for intelligent community planning to emerge from the insulated atmosphere of Sacramento.

Ever since passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the question of who will pay for new schools--indeed, all new community infrastructure--has been a major political football. Traditionally, most school construction was financed with local bonds, which, even in the old days, required a two-thirds approval vote. For a time after Proposition 13 passed, however, local school districts were prohibited from even placing a school bond on the ballot. Later, as the percentage of voters with children in public schools declined, school-district officials assumed that it was impossible to get a two-thirds vote. Gradually, the financial burden began to shift, first to the state and later, when even billions from the state proved insufficient, to developers.

Under state law, school districts can impose fees on developers to cover part of the cost of new construction. But the fees are limited to about $2 a square foot on residential property, or about $3,000 a unit for a typical three-bedroom house. In recent years, school districts and cities punched holes in the law, winning the power to deny a new development project unless its developers coughed up $5,000 to $6,000 a house. (That's about half the total cost of necessary school space.)

This strategy is often called the Mira doctrine, named for the plaintiff in a San Diego lawsuit that the cities and school districts won in 1988. Ever since, developers have lobbied the Legislature to void it. But because school districts and cities enjoyed the power Mira conferred on them, the developers have been stymied. Consequently, for almost a decade the question of how to bridge the financial gap in school construction was a legislative stalemate.

This year, two developments broke the stalemate: the growing success rate of local bond measures and the willingness of teachers' unions to cut a deal with developers.

Five years ago, school districts were perceived as too chicken to go to their own voters and ask for the money to pay for new schools. Surely, getting money from Sacramento, or from developers, was easier than getting a two-thirds vote from your own constituents. Now that's changed. In the past few years, the economy has improved, school issues are more popular and school boards have figured out how to win local bond elections.

More decisive has been the change in teachers' attitudes. Since class-size reduction was first imposed two years ago, teachers have become interested in school facilities. In the past, they cared little about them, sometimes viewing construction as competition for scarce financial resources that would otherwise flow into their salaries. But class-size reduction has meant that school districts have had to clear out every available broom closet for classroom use and haul in a huge number of "portable" classrooms. Suddenly, school facilities have become a "working conditions" issue.

Last year, the California Teachers Assn. hired the legislative staff's reigning school-facilities guru, Richard Simpson. He quickly forged an alliance with the home builders that almost succeeded. This year, Simpson returned to the Legislature to work for Assembly Speaker Antonio R. Villaraigosa. With Villaraigosa's help, the home builders got their state school bond and the eight-year suspension of Mira. Among other things, the deal will force more school districts to float local bonds, because they will have to at least try to pass a bond before they get any of their Mira authority back.

It's appropriate to shift more of the financial burden for school construction to local voters. After all, the state's own bonding capacity is rapidly running dry, while local school districts generally have good ratings on Wall Street. But preempting local planning power is a delicate business that the state should undertake only as part of a well-thought-out policy strategy, not as a product of power politics. Unfortunately, Sacramento played politics at the expense of deliberation.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World