Fate of huge California bond to update school facilities hangs in balance

Last October, when he signed the legislation that placed Proposition 13 on the ballot, Gov. Gavin Newsom made a prediction: “Voters will approve this bond, because voters historically approve school bonds.”

Newsom and supporters, who spent millions of dollars campaigning for a statewide ballot measure with no organized opposition, billed Prop. 13 as a critical investment for modernizing crumbling infrastructure in California’s public schools. The massive $15 billion state school bond’s focus on student health and safety issues, they said, transcended politics and ideology.

Whether the governor’s prediction holds true is still up in the air. Although the measure is trailing badly, those results could change as millions of mail ballot continue to arrive and be counted through Friday.

The lion’s share of the state bond funds — $9 billion — are designated for K-12 public schools, with the other $6 billion split between community colleges and the California State University and University of California systems.

But the limited polling leading up to the March 3 primary indicated a lukewarm response from voters. A February poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed just 51% of voters planned to support the measure.

The bond’s name evoked confusion among many voters, conjuring up the other, far more recognizable Proposition 13 — the one voters passed in 1978 to cap property taxes.

With interest, the 2020 version of Prop. 13 had a $26 billion price tag repaid by the state over 35 years at about $740 million per year, according to legislative analysts.

School districts that have lacked funding to modernize facilities are more likely to experience disruptions in the form of emergency school closures due to crumbling infrastructure, according to a CalMatters analysis. 

Since 2014, there’ve been at least 33 instances where mold or asbestos — two health and safety issues prioritized in Prop. 13 — resulted in emergency school closures. One small school district in Trinity County closed its 60-year-old campus for three weeks in 2017 due to a mold crisis. School leaders said they lacked funds and the means to raise money for a backlog of repairs.

In California, most school facilities funding comes via local school bonds, where stark inequities exist. 

Hundreds of school districts with hundreds of thousands of students have gone two decades without passing any local bonds, a separate 2018 CalMatters analysis found, and there are wide disparities in the amounts raised by districts. Wealthier school districts in tony locales such as Beverly Hills have tended over the years to approve generous local school bonds, while some poorer districts in places such as the Central Valley have either been unable to win voter approval for any school bonds or lack the bonding capacity to raise funds.

Prop. 13 aimed to change how the state distributes funds through its School Facilities Program by replacing its first-come, first-served method of processing applications with a points-based system that places schools further ahead in line depending on the urgency of their needs. A new sliding scale would give slightly more in state matching funds to the neediest school districts, similar to California’s school finance law.

Small school districts would get 10% of funding set aside, as well as additional technical assistance. Prop. 13 also raises the bonding capacity for local school districts, essentially allowing them to place larger bond measures on local ballots.

Newsom and school advocates and officials praised many of the technical changes in the bond, viewing them as more equitable. 

Though there was no organized opposition campaign against Prop. 13, opponents such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association criticized the measure for raising debt limits for local districts, a move the group said places additional burdens for school facilities on local taxpayers. They chafed at language in the bond that gives priority to school district applications that use  project labor agreements.

Another feature of the bond that raised concerns: a provision tucked into it that critics condemned as a giveaway to developers. Under the measure, those who build new multi-family developments around transit win an exemption from school-levied developer fees.

Educators and Prop. 13 supporters say the ballot measure represents an urgent need to upgrade school facilities. 

Researchers behind Stanford’s Getting Down to Facts education policy studies noted that schools would need about $117 billion in facilities funding over the next decade to build and modernize schools.

Voters passed the state’s most recent school bond, Proposition 51, in 2016 after a decade without any K-12 school bonds. Funds generated by that $9 billion bond have all been claimed. 

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Voters including Dave Ade of San Jose, right, fill out their ballots on Nov. 6, 2018, at The Salvation Army in San Jose. Photo by Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

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