The Public Eye

School bond campaigns rely heavily on donations from campus contractors

School construction bond measures have attracted donations from construction contractors and companies in the building trades.
School construction bond measures have attracted donations from construction contractors and companies in the building trades. Sacramento Bee file

The building industry is pouring money into campaigns to pass local school bonds that would lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in Sacramento-area campus construction.

Measure P, the $750 million bond measure proposed for San Juan Unified, brought in $207,424 in campaign contributions between the beginning of the year and the latest filing deadline Thursday, more than $201,000 from construction industry businesses. The bulk of the money – $123,750 – was contributed within the last month.

Many large donors have had past contracts with San Juan Unified, based on an analysis by The Sacramento Bee of contributions made before a Sept. 29 filing deadline.

The companies have collectively been paid $49.2 million for work they have done over the past five years, according to district information. Clark & Sullivan Construction received $27.9 million, Innovative Construction Services $6.85 million, Nacht & Lewis Architects $3.5 million, Otto Construction $3.4 million, KMM Services Inc. $3.5 million, Warren Consulting Engineers $1.3 million and Vanden Brothers Electric Inc. $2.8 million.

That is no coincidence, said Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

“Contractors are not donating to the bond races because they are interested in educating children,” he said. “Their primary motivation is getting more business.”

But San Juan Unified spokesman Trent Allen said donors will not have an advantage in winning contracts if Measure P passes.

“We use a competitive process to award contracts to ensure that each job is awarded to the company that can best complete the project at a competitive and fair price,” he said. “The process is reviewed and overseen by an independent legal firm as well as our purchasing department to ensure compliance with all laws and regulations.”

Measure M, the $476 million Elk Grove Unified facilities bond, is drawing donations from home builders and other construction-related firms. School officials say the district will need to build schools for the 13,940 additional students expected to move into the district over the next 10 years.

The Elk Grove campaign gathered $109,000 in donations by Thursday, according to campaign finance reports. Those included more than $38,000 from the building industry, $26,000 from the Elk Grove Unified teachers union and $40,000 from home builders. Taylor Morrison of California gave $15,000, Lennar Sacramento Homebuilding $15,000 and Tsakopoulos Investments $10,000.

Absent public funding for school construction, school districts often rely on higher developer fees to build new campuses.

A representative from Taylor Morrison of California said earlier this month the company did not have anyone available to respond to questions. Lennar Sacramento Homebuilding also did not respond to requests for comment. A late call to Tsakopoulous Investments was not returned Friday.

There are considerably fewer funds from the construction trades for the “Yes on Measure G” committee, which supports a parcel tax proposed for Sacramento City Unified. The parcel tax funds programs, not facilities. The campaign collected $79,000 by Thursday, with less than $10,000 from the construction industry. Much of the money came from the war chests of local elected officials, including Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and several school board members, as well as from district employees.

School finance measures must receive more than a majority of votes to pass. Bond measures require 55 percent support, while parcel taxes require two-thirds.

Donations to bond campaigns by construction and finance firms who could receive contracts have drawn scrutiny before.

Two years ago, Folsom Cordova Unified School District responded by passing a resolution that declared no contracts would go to architects or general contractors who donated to bond campaigns unless they were the lowest bidder – except in limited circumstances, according to Daniel Thigpen, district spokesman.

The building trades also are supporting Prop. 51, a $9 billion bond, that will help pay for new schools, update facilities and improve technology. The funds would match school construction funds generated locally.

Dave Walrath, an education lobbyist working with the “Yes on Proposition 51” campaign, said members of the building industry are the primary donors to the “Yes on 51” campaign because public agencies cannot donate.

“These are the people who contribute and, yes, they may have some work, but there is not guaranteed work,” he said. “The state bond doesn’t guarantee work for anybody.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Sacramento County school finance measures

Measure D (Roseville Joint Union High School District – includes Antelope area) – $96 million facilities bond. Estimated cost: $14.99 annually for each $100,000 of assessed value.

Measure E (Galt Joint Union High School District) – $36 million facilities bond. Estimated cost: $30 per $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.

Measure G (Sacramento City Unified) – Parcel tax to fund programs, including those for students at risk of falling behind academically or dropping out. Cost: $75 per parcel.

Measure K (Galt Joint Union Elementary School District) – $19.7 million facilities bond. Estimated cost: $30 per $100,000 of property value.

Measure M (Elk Grove Unified) – $476 million facilities bond. Estimated cost: $38 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Measure P (San Juan Unified) – $750 million facilities bond. Estimated cost: $60 per $100,000 of property value.

Source: Sacramento County Elections Department