On February 1, 2020 the Orange County Register published this guest commentary by me in its Opinion section. I thank the OC Register for publishing my commentary:
California voters will confront a Vesuvius of public school bond measures on the March 3, 2020 — nine of them in Orange County. In South Orange County, the Capistrano Unified School District is pushing two bonds (Measures H and I). If passed, both would obligate CUSD voters to pay $724 million in principal and interest — on top of all of the other taxes and bonds locals already pay.
Bonds are a tax. Just as homebuyers use mortgages to borrow money, governments borrow money, and repay lenders the loan amount (the principal) plus interest, often over the course of 30 years. Few ever talk about interest payments when they talk about bonds — and those interest payments can double the announced cost of the bond, sucking up money for other essential government services.
Voters throughout the state need to ask themselves whether these bonds are truly necessary and urgent, or yet another bailout for bad financial management of the state’s schools.
I’d argue it’s clearly the latter. Our problem isn’t revenue; California residents are already among the highest taxed in the nation. California has the dubious distinction of the imposing the nation’s highest state income tax rates, the second-highest gasoline taxes (we’ll be the highest on July 1, 2020), high sales and utility taxes, and even higher DMV fees. These gold medals in taxation come at the same time that the federal government has killed the deductibility of state and local taxes.
So, our problem isn’t revenue. It’s spending — or rather misspending. Consider that in 2012, California voters passed new “temporary taxes” to support schools (Proposition 30). The teachers unions that backed Prop. 30 promised these new taxes would provide billions of dollars for the school system. Prop. 30 passed, but four years later, the same unions and their allies in government were back with Proposition 55, a measure to extend for 12 years the temporary taxes first passed in Prop. 30.
Residents in CUSD can point to a similar experience. In 1999, voters there passed Measure A, a multi-million-dollar bond advertised as urgent. District schools, Measure A supporters said, were plagued by asbestos, in need of roof repairs and earthquake retrofitting and new science laboratories. Today, 20 years later, Measures H & I CUSD use these same problems as the evidence that proves the district is starved of cash.
Voters have every right to ask where all those tax dollars went. District records show that some 86 percent of its income are spent on the salaries and benefits of its employees. Some of those employees are paid remarkably well for a district that can’t manage its money. CUSD Superintendent Kirsten Vital earned $333,267 in 2018. Her deputy, Clark Hampton clocked in at $241,556. By contrast, Gov. Gavin Newsom was given a raise in December, bringing him to $210,000 annually, making him the nation’s highest paid governor. The bottom line: Each of CUSD’s top officials earns more than California’s top elected official.
Finally, it’s important to note that student enrollment in CUSD is declining. CUSD’s internal documents confirm that district officials know this. And yet they want to use new bond taxes to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into school building projects. So why is the district asking taxpayers to pay for improvements to school sites it will likely close over the next few years? Or is the district planning to spend the bond revenue on other projects?
Voters deserve straightforward answers on what CUSD intends to do with their bond taxes before they vote to place additional 30-year tax lien on their properties.
Residents and taxpayers deserve better stewardship of their tax dollars. They deserve transparency from their local government school trustees and education bureaucrats.
Note: this is my first post on Socal Political News. I thank Chris Emami (our publisher) for the privilege to be an author here. I hope readers find my posts (and everyone else’s) informative, challenging and good food for thought.