The West Contra Costa school district should slow its deceptive school construction program because it's pushing too much debt onto property owners and will soon exceed tax limits it promised voters.
From 1998 to 2012, the district obtained voter authorization for six bond programs, totaling $1.6 billion. As a result, in the first 10 years, West Contra Costa issued more bonds for school construction than any other K-12 district in the state except much-larger San Diego and Los Angeles.
Today, the district has $797 million of outstanding debt. The average homeowner in the district, with a house assessed at $215,000, will pay an extra $464 in property taxes this year to fund the district's annual bond payments. Owners of property with higher assessments will pay proportionately more.
Those taxes will increase more than 35 percent in the next four years if the district proceeds with current plans to issue additional bonds.
Despite the revenues from property owners, district officials have struggled to pay bondholders, in one case using funds from one bond program to make payments on another -- akin to borrowing from one credit card to pay off a second.
In another case, the district was so tapped out when it needed money in 2010 that it had to issue $2.5 million of bonds with back-end payments 25 years later of $34 million -- an astounding $13.50 for every dollar borrowed.
In their quest to rebuild or replace every school, district officials are moving too fast, behaving irresponsibly and overtaxing poor and working-class residents.
The district finds itself so deeply in debt that it must obtain California Board of Education approval to issue more. The district cannot legally have outstanding bonds worth more than 2.5 percent of the assessed value of property in the district without a state waiver.
The district has hit its limit -- again. The state board granted it waivers in 2002, 2009 and 2011. Indeed, no other California school district since 2000 has obtained waivers to issue as many bonds as West Contra Costa. No other school district has come close.
District officials counter that voters approved the borrowing. But that's largely because of the district's misleading campaigns.
Each time they went to the ballot, district officials presented that particular bond measure to voters as if it were the only one. They never mentioned the outstanding debt taxpayers already owed from prior measures.
School officials also claim they warned voters before the 2012 vote that they would need the state waiver. That's a fib. The ballot wording actually said just the opposite, that the district would stay "within legal rates and bonding capacity limits."
But buried on the last of 14 pages of ballot pamphlet material on the measure -- at the end of a paragraph that is, believe it or not, three pages long -- voters are told that "the District may seek a waiver from the State Board of Education of the applicable bonding limit requirements."
May seek? They knew last summer that they would need a waiver. That's why they buried that clause where no one would see it.
It's unlikely the state board will turn down the waiver request. While the district must apply, California law gives the board limited reasons to deny the request -- and none have to do with financial burden on local taxpayers.
District officials have another problem. They gave voters an estimated top tax rate for each ballot measure. For the 2002 and 2005 bond programs that limit was $60 per $100,000 of assessed value.
But that was based on unrealistic district assumptions about growth in property values that haven't panned out. Consequently, the district must charge higher tax rates than promised to raise funds needed to pay off already-issued bonds. Meanwhile, going forward, the district continues to use unrealistic assumptions.
It all adds up to too much debt, and too great a taxpayer burden. District officials need to start thinking about property owners who foot the bill. New schools are nice, but they must also be affordable.
Contact columnist and editorial writer Daniel Borenstein at 925-943-8248 firstname.lastname@example.org