Soapbox

Prop. 51 is too costly and locks in flawed rules

Dave Foust with Seward L. Schreder Construction looks over blueprints in July for portable classrooms being added at Ethel Baker Elementary School in Sacramento. Proposition 61, a $9 billion school bond on the November ballot, would provide state matching money for construction and repairs.
Dave Foust with Seward L. Schreder Construction looks over blueprints in July for portable classrooms being added at Ethel Baker Elementary School in Sacramento. Proposition 61, a $9 billion school bond on the November ballot, would provide state matching money for construction and repairs. Sacramento Bee file

The state’s school facilities program is fundamentally flawed. It is neither a fair nor efficient way of paying for the construction and renovation of K-12 school buildings.

Yet, Proposition 51 would borrow $9 billion and lock in place this flawed program. Its problems include:

▪ It’s first-come, first-served, meaning that the best projects don’t get funded. Instead, the program favors those larger school districts that have the biggest staffs who can prepare applications the fastest.

▪ It doesn’t focus on helping districts that are in the worst financial shape and need the most help in paying for school facilities.

▪ It’s overly complex and bureaucratic, requiring more than 10 state entities to review and approve funding.

▪ It encourages the building of new schools, rather than fixing existing ones.

A June audit of the program found even more problems. For example, bond funds were inappropriately used to buy two tractors, four golf carts and a mascot uniform. Even worse, there are virtually no consequences for these abuses.

Instead of being forced to repay misused funds, districts were allowed to keep the money and use it on future projects.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown began negotiating with interested parties on a school facilities bond. He proposed a multibillion-dollar bond that would have given all districts a fair chance to receive funding but weighted in favor of poorer districts.

The changes would have reduced red tape and emphasized repairing or renovating our existing schools. The changes were designed to make sure that every taxpayer dollar spent would be used prudently and for the most urgent projects.

However, groups representing real estate developers, homebuilders and architects refused to agree to a single change in the existing program or to even discuss how to improve the program. They insisted on the status quo.

So instead of improving the program, the developers placed Proposition 51 on the November ballot.

This $9 billion bond makes no changes to the current bureaucratic, outdated and biased program. Even worse, it locks in place most aspects of the program to eliminate the possibility that improvements are even considered in future years.

Bonds are not free. A yes vote on Proposition 51 requires the state of California to borrow $9 billion. The measure will increase state debt and cost taxpayers $500 million every year for the next 35 years. The state’s budget is tightly balanced, and that additional $500 million has to come from somewhere.

Approving Proposition 51 means less money for classroom instruction at schools and universities, less money to help the poor, elderly and disabled and less money to protect public safety. And all to continue a school facilities program that we know is flawed.

I will be voting no on Proposition 51. Our schools and taxpayers deserve better.

Michael Cohen is director of the California Department of Finance. He can be contacted at mc@dof.ca.gov.

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