Nearly 40 school bond measures headed for voters in LA and OC

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As counties prepare their lists of local initiatives for the November ballots, a slew of requests for new school facilities borrowing are heading to voters for approval.

In Los Angeles County alone, an early list shows 28 school bonds – nearly half of all local measures on the ballots – are set to come before voters.

"It looks like, as we saw in 2012 and in 2014, in general elections there's a huge glut of bond measures on the ballot," said Kevin Dayton, a research analyst with the nonprofit California Policy Center. "I wouldn't be surprised if this year's number of school and college bond measures in California is a record."

L.A.'s list of local measures could still change; election officials said they expect to finalize it next week. Orange County's list has been finalized, and 10 school districts will seek funding there.

The amounts range from $49,000,000 from Centralia Elementary School District to $889,000,000 from Capistrano Unified School District.

The largest school bond request in both counties from a K-12 district is from Long Beach Unified, the third largest district in the state. It's asking voters to sign off on $1.5 billion in bonds. 

"We need to fix deteriorating bathrooms, leaky roofs, upgrade fire alarms and security systems, improve the plumbing," said Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou. 

Eftychiou said the district relies on bond funding for these much-needed fixes. In fact, they're still working on construction projects from a bond proposition called Measure K that voters approved in 2008.

"The state's pot of money for school facilities has run dry," he said. "It's empty."

Eftychiou said the district estimates the overall cost to taxpayers of the bonds after years of interest will be more than $3 billion.

A statewide initiative for school improvements and construction, Prop 51, will also be on the ballot this November. Some districts hope to use money they secure with school bonds this November to be eligible for matching funds through the state initiative. 

School bonds are paid back with taxpayer dollars from property tax increases. Terms are typically 25 to 40 years, with interest. 

Dayton said that since the passage of Prop 39 in November of 2000, which lowered the percentage of votes needed for most school bond measures from two-thirds to 55 percent, passage rates have gone up dramatically. 

The rate of approval for school and college bonds in California before 2000 was slightly below 50 percent, he said, and it's now at 90 percent. 

Increases in passage rates in recent years are partly due to consultants who are paid to help get these measures passed. Dayton said they often have an advantage over voters, who may not be familiar with how bonds work. 

"They don't realize that what they're doing is authorizing school and college districts to borrow money from investors and then pay that money back to investors over time with interest," he said.

On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 2116, which will increase oversight of school bonds by requiring school districts to take into consideration county assessors' projections for property valuations.  

Manhattan Beach Unified Superintendent Mike Matthews said his district is asking for a total of $153 million in two separate measures that would fund badly needed repair and construction projects and a new gym.

"We joke that we’re sometimes holding things together with chewing gum and duct tape," he said. 

With classrooms between 60 and 80 years old, Matthews said, they need plumbing repairs and roofing fixes. Only about half of the classrooms have air conditioning. He said if voters pass the school bonds they'll have the money they need to equip all of the classrooms with A/C.

In eastern L.A. County, Walnut Valley Unified – which appears to be the only district in L.A. County that did not round up its request for funding –  is asking voters to approve issuing $152,880,000 in bonds.

To help make the case, the district has been busing in community members in school buses over the summer to take a look at the schools and see how badly the repairs are needed. About 100 people have taken tours so far, according to Bob Taylor, the district's superintendent.

Taylor said the district needs things like additional science classrooms and science labs. 

"I see buildings that don't match the needs of our students," Taylor said. "I think people are pretty shocked when you look at the level of academic achievement that we have in our schools and you compare that with the facility." 

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