Data exclusive: With California school bonds, the rich get richer and the poor, not so much
Schools in California’s wealthier communities have been reaping far more local bond money than poorer districts, a CALmatters analysis shows—a reality that amplifies existing inequities for the state’s public school students.
Districts with the lowest concentrations of students on free or reduced lunch, a poverty indicator, have averaged more than twice as many local bond dollars per student since 1998 as the most impoverished districts.
And depending on where your children go to school, they could be benefitting from as much as $270,000 per pupil in local bond money over the past two decades, or as little as $838—or nothing.
The amounts of local bonds, typically used for school facilities, are heavily reliant on local property values—a clear advantage to schools ensconced in the tonier parts of California.
Disparities in local school bonds are also reflected in state school bonds, although experts say the differences aren’t as stark. Nonetheless, state bonds are often awarded as matching dollars for local bonds. That means richer school districts are typically able to get more bang for their local bucks, because they’re able to collect more state matching money, and hire staff to navigate the state’s cumbersome application process.
The result: While voters in many communities have approved unprecedented amounts of local school bonds to modernize facilities, some students, many of them poor, have remained in crumbling classrooms that haven’t been substantially renovated since they were first built in the 1950s or 60s.
These imbalances in school facilities across California are “pretty evident and pretty stark,” said Shin Green, an Oakland-based school infrastructure financing consultant. “In my heart of hearts, I think this is something we should address.
“I think just because your family decided to live in a rural community, you don’t punish a kid by putting them in a substandard school. They had no choice in that.”
Local bond dollars make up the greatest share of money that school districts use to pay for the construction of new buildings, renovations to older facilities, and technology and infrastructure.
Our analysis of the history of school bonds over the past two decades found a lopsided effect that appears to not only favor wealthier communities, but also make it harder for smaller and rural districts to maximize local dollars.
Example: Hilmar Unified, in a Merced County community situated in the quiet farmlands between Interstate 5 and Highway 99. About 60 percent of the district’s 2,400 students last year were on free or reduced lunch, according to state data. Hilmar passed just one local bond in the past 20 years worth $2 million. That amounts to about $838 per pupil.
During the same period, voters in Beverly Hills Unified, with nearly 4,000 students enrolled as of last year, approved more than $1 billion in local bonds—that’s $271,803 per pupil.
Local school bond measures exploded in California. In next Tuesday’s election, voters will be asked to approve 100 local bond measures totaling $12 billion. Over the past 20 years, voters across 660 California school districts have passed local bonds worth about $113 billion.
Yet in the same time, more than 350 school districts with a combined 430,000 students have not passed a single local school bond.
One of those is the Pleasant View Elementary School District west of Porterville, where some school buildings date back to the 1940s. Much of the renovations to the small Central Valley district of about 475 came from penny-pinching, and from a state “hardship” fund. To qualify, school districts must have a total bonding capacity of less than $5 million, exhausted other funding and have needs that present “an imminent threat to the health and safety of the pupils.”
It hasn’t been enough, said Mark Odsather, Pleasant View’s superintendent, and a local bond is out of the question because the district’s $1.5 million bonding capacity is so low “it wouldn’t build anything.”
Until 2010, the district relied on mostly ineffective “swamp coolers” to try to cool schools during days of triple-digit heat—they could only reduce a full classroom down to a still-sweltering 88 degrees, Odsather said. (A neighboring district, Rockford Elementary, still has some rooms operating on swamp coolers.) Pleasant View was able to install air conditioners through a settlement from a 2000 class action lawsuit that alleged the state failed to meet the basic needs of thousands of students primarily from low-income communities.
“We have a portable as our library, whereas 75 miles north of me in Clovis Unified, they’ve got big libraries on their campuses,” Odsather said. “They’ve got gyms. We don’t really have those facilities in the smalls” —his term for tinier districts
For years, researchers and education advocates have sounded alarms over how public schools in California receive funding for their facilities.
A Stanford study published in September found California public schools will need about $117 billion for facilities construction and repairs over the next decade. The study also found that the wide disparities in school facilities funding “systematically related to school district property wealth, income, and students’ backgrounds result in a relatively regressive finance system.”
A 2015 UC Berkeley study also found districts with high populations of low-income students tend to use more money intended to go toward classroom instruction to pay for facilities, compared to more affluent districts.
Jeff Vincent, co-founder of UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools and an author of the Stanford report, said the system for financing school facilities in California runs counter to the state’s recent efforts to overhaul how it funds its public schools. In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a new funding formula that gives more money for items such as instructional costs to schools that have the greatest concentrations of students in need.
“We have prioritized state dollars to lower-wealth places to give them a leg up, and we really have not done that on the school facilities side of the equation,” Vincent said.
The number and amounts of approved local bond measures have grown exponentially over the past two decades, in part because of a law that lowered the threshold for approval of school bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent. While voters across California have approved most local school bond measures, they remain difficult to pass in some communities.
The disparities in local bond funding are not limited to small rural districts; they’re evident even in California’s 10 largest districts.
For example, voters in Santa Ana Unified School District approved local bonds equating to $6,496 per student since 1998, while neighboring Capistrano Unified approved a single bond equal to $1,212 per student. Those numbers are dwarfed by the success of San Diego Unified, which over the same period has passed local bonds amounting to $50,712 per pupil.
Several of the California districts that have not passed any local bond measures say their schools are in such dire need of repair that a single bond—even at their highest bonding capacity—is insufficient. This includes Hesperia Unified in San Bernardino County, the largest district in the state to have not passed a local bond measure in 20 years, according to the district. The high desert district failed to pass a $207 million bond four years ago.
David Olney, Hesperia’s superintendent, said among his district’s most pressing needs are repairing bathrooms and deteriorated roofs, building specialized classrooms for students with special needs, updating a high school gymnasium floor and modernizing classrooms built in the 1960s.
Many of these classrooms only have one or two electrical plug outlets, he said, meaning they can’t support modern curriculum that relies on computers and other electronics.
“Our job is to prepare our students for the future,” Olney said. “And if you’re going into a classroom that is designed for students 50 years ago, that’s really not preparing students for their tomorrow.”
As for the Beverly Hills Unified district, it’s using local bond money for costly safety and retrofitting measures to its historic school buildings, some of which date back to the 1930s and have been popularized by films—such as the retractable gym floor over the swimming pool in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
District attorney Terry Tao likened the bond-funded projects to “taking a Model T (car) and retrofitting it with all of today’s safety components.” He said a cheaper alternative—tearing down the buildings and rebuilding replicas—was met with public furor because of the buildings’ historical and sentimental value.