Yes, we need schools, but not the Prop. 51 $9 billion school bond

Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown has embraced the responsibility for paying down debt and saying no to unnecessary state spending.

And so voters should take heed of Brown’s flinty stand on Proposition 51, the $9 billion bond to build and repair public schools, with $2 billion of the total earmarked for community colleges.

The California Democratic and Republican parties endorse the measure, as does the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Labor Federation and many elected leaders including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. But Brown is correct, and we side with the governor, with a caveat.

Voters should reject Proposition 51, but Brown should engage in a serious effort with legislators to fashion a smaller school construction bond, while updating the nearly 20-year-old formula for allocating school bond money.

Without doubt, many aging schools need to be remodeled, and some schools should be built to accommodate shifting population. Certainly, community colleges, the second chance for so many people, are vital to our collective future.

But California’s existing $85 billion in bond debt takes a 5 percent bite out of the state’s general fund each year, $5.4 billion this year. The $9 billion debt that would be authorized by Proposition 51 would cost an additional $500 million a year, for the next 30 years.

Voters in local school districts across the state have authorized another $64 billion in bond debt; several districts, including some in the Sacramento region, are seeking voter approval of more bonds on Nov. 8 in anticipation of the all-important state match.

The Sacramento Bee editorial board generally supports local school bond measures. And even if voters reject Proposition 51, most local measures still would make sense, in anticipation that the governor and legislators will fashion a more thoughtful, slimmed-down version of the current $9 billion proposal.

An alternative – raising local developer fees to pay for schools – is far less desirable. Higher fees jack up housing prices, which already are exorbitant in much of California. And all Californians benefit from clean, well-lit and modern schools, not just the children of people who buy new homes.

Brown raised important concerns earlier this year in his budget proposal, when he said the proposed school bond would not alter the existing allocation system, which was established in 1998 when enrollment was projected to increase. Now, demographers believe enrollment will be flat in the coming years.

The current system allocates money on a first-come, first-served basis, which rewards districts with sophisticated lobby arms, not necessarily districts that have the most need. It also “creates an incentive for districts to build new schools when they already have the capacity to absorb enrollment growth,” the governor’s budget notes.

Voters can be forgiven if they’re confused by the Nov. 8 ballot. Among the 16 other measures is Proposition 53, Stockton-area farmer Dean Cortopassi’s brainchild, which would require statewide votes on a different type of bond, revenue bonds, for public works projects costing $2 billion or more.

Proposition 53, like most quick fixes, is bad idea, though one of Cortopassi’s arguments – that California is too deeply in debt – is not wrong. Debt, in itself, is not terrible, but California needs to be smart about the debt it takes on.

Public schools and community colleges deserve support. But Proposition 51 is inflated and relies on an outdated formula.

Brown should have negotiated more directly two years ago when legislators from both parties were poised to approve a school construction bond. He should not repeat that mistake. Legislators and Brown – especially the governor – need to fashion a smarter bond that will help educate the next generation.