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Editorial: Two bonds on California’s November ballot are too many bonds

Gov. Jerry Brown has been frugal when it comes to saddling the state with more debt, even when it is for a good cause.

It has taken an extreme drought to get him to consider a water bond for the November ballot. Even so, he’s been labeled a cheapskate by legislators and others who think his $6 billion water bond proposal is so low as to be laughable.

So, it’s probably not a great time to ask Brown to support any additional funding commitments.

Yet some legislators, builders and union leaders are hoping that once the governor finishes with the water bond, he will sign off on a second bond for the ballot, this one for $4.5 billion to build new schools and modernize existing ones. It’s a tough sell.

Neither Brown nor his staff will comment on which way they might be leaning on the prospect of a school bond this year. But knowing our debt-averse governor – and considering his recent comments that new schools avoid “unsustainable reliance” on state debt – we suspect he’s not inclined.

The last statewide school-construction bond passed in 2006, and the proceeds have been allocated or are authorized for specific projects. Based on projections of student growth and housing trends, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, who is leading the bond push, said the need during the next four to five years will be about $2.5 billion for new schools and $2 billion for modernization projects.

There’s no doubt that there is need to replenish the statewide fund to help local school districts modernize and upgrade existing schools and build new ones as the need arises. But we’re not sure this is the right time to do it. And maybe not the right way.

Chris Evans, a supporter of the bond and superintendent of Natomas Unified School District, said his district is still growing. And with the eventual lifting of the building moratorium, he projects Natomas’ student body to boom in the next decade, from about 13,000 to as many as 20,000.

To prepare, the district is asking local voters to pass a $129 million building bond in November, a request that relies on a match from state funds that don’t exist.

Natomas’ projections are based on developments penciling out for homebuilders. If developers must include the cost of schools into the sticker price for new homes, it’s not good for business. That explains why homebuilders, along with architects and trade unions, are supporting the bond and paying for the campaign.

In fact, school enrollment has been on a general decline statewide for more than a decade and is expected to continue to drop at least through the next four years, according to the state Department of Finance.

The decrease has been dramatic in some urban districts. The state’s largest, Los Angeles Unified, has lost more than 100,000 students in the last decade. Sacramento City Unified School District closed seven schools last year because there weren’t enough students to fill the classrooms.

Although statewide enrollment is projected to start increasing in the next few years, it is forecast in three California counties with great sprawl potential – Kern, Riverside and San Bernardino. Sprawl is not something the state should encourage.

Buchanan, chairwoman of the Assembly’s Education Committee, acknowledged there is no school facilities emergency at the moment.

“Our need now is not going to be as great as in the past where we had to play catch-up,” Buchanan said during a meeting with The Bee’s editorial board recently, “but we still have significant need and it’s important for this state to live up to its part of the bargain.”

Californians have an obligation to educate children in safe and well-equipped schools. But we ought to do that in a way and time that makes sense for the California, not developers.

Bond advocates say the governor is the only real obstacle to the bond. They expect that, if the governor were to allow the school bond to reach the ballot, voters won’t be daunted by more than $10 billion worth of debt.

They may be right. However, we don’t think it’s worth the gamble.