Editorial: Getting it right on local school bonds meanings slowing down

Three Sacramento County school districts have measures on the Nov. 4 ballot that ask voters to support bonds for new schools and improvements to existing schools.

Folsom Cordova Unified is asking to borrow $195 million to update some of its schools, which will cost an estimated $60 per $100,000 assessed valuation of each property to pay back, though that could change based on factors including when the bonds are sold and fluctuating interest rates. Natomas Unified is seeking a $129 million bond, and Robla School District is seeking a $29.8 million bond.

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board is not going to weigh in on proposals for individual school bonds, or the two that Woodland Unified is seeking, $78 million and $19 million, or the $49.8 million bond that Washington Unified in West Sacramento wants to repair and upgrade aging schools.

While each district has legitimate need, we also believe the needs outlined in the bond measures, such as Folsom Cordova’s plan to cut utility bills and “prepare students for the 21st century” can wait a short time while two important things happen.

The first is for a statewide school facilities bond to pass. When local school officials put their bonds on the Nov. 4 ballot, they were clearly expecting a $4.5 billion statewide bond to replenish the account that supplies matching building funds to districts to be on the ballot as well. But it was scuttled in favor of Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond, which the governor appropriately backed over schools. A statewide school bond will no doubt be back – in November 2016, if not sooner.

The second thing is for school districts to draft new bond proposals that include the specific cost-control, smart building and oversight guidelines developed by the Sacramento Taxpayers Association. After the debacle of capital appreciation bonds, the STA decided to be proactive with school bonds and help districts design bond packages that won’t cost more than than they have to.

Capital appreciation bonds put off repayment so far in the future that the payback cost is multiplied many times, leaving a heavy burden on future generations and making Wall Street financial firms even richer. Folsom Cordova, for example, used them to finance a building that cost $514,000 to build and will now cost $9.1 million to repay.

School districts still have work to do to regain the trust of voters. Putting these smart guidelines into the bond language itself is a way to do that.

Local schools need to upgrade and expand, particularly in Natomas, which faces the prospect of a new home-building boom. But bonds saddle communities with huge debts that can cut into the resources for programs and services. We need bonds, but we also need to take the time to do them right.