It's not smart to apply for another credit card without first considering how much you owe on the six already in your wallet.
That essentially is what West Contra Costa voters are being asked to do as they consider approval of the seventh round of school construction borrowing since 1998.
In seeking residents' blessings at the ballot June 3 for another $270 million of bonds, school and county officials never mention more than $1.6 billion already approved.
While claiming the annual cost to property owners for the latest bond proposal, Measure H, would be $36 for every $100,000 of assessed valuation, they leave out that total payment for all seven bond measures would reach nearly 10 times as much.
Many districts in California have sought multiple bond approvals. What makes West Contra Costa unusual is the scale. Since starting its school reconstruction program, the K-12 district has issued more bonds than any other in the state, with the exception of the much-larger Los Angeles and San Diego districts.
Unfortunately, failure to disclose the cumulative cost to voters is not unique. In the South Bay, for example, the East Side Union High School District has done the same thing, but on a smaller scale.
As voters go to the polls, they're only being told the balance and payment for the new credit card. Blame county attorneys, charged with writing the ballot analyses, and school superintendents, who usually sign the legally required tax projection statements. They narrowly construe the law and provide only minimal information.
It's deception by omission. It's morally, ethically and possibly legally wrong. If these officials won't do the right thing, state lawmakers must unambiguously insist on it.
Most school bond measures merit public support. But voters deserve full information before deciding whether to raise local taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars.
In Contra Costa, County Counsel Sharon Anderson insists she can't say more in her "impartial" ballot analysis without injecting bias. So she uses boilerplate language that tells only part of the story.
Susan Swain, Santa Clara County lead deputy county counsel, when preparing the analysis for East Side's 2012 bond measure, similarly ignored the existing tax burden from four prior bond issues.
They confuse bias with context. The law requires an "impartial analysis of the measure, showing the effect of the measure on the existing law and the operation of the measure." Consider the American Heritage dictionary definition of analysis: "The study of ... constituent parts and their interrelationships in making up a whole."
Anderson says it's up to the press to provide context. Actually, our work doesn't relieve her from doing hers. Thoughtful California voters often place high importance on official ballot pamphlet analyses of state and local measures. They deserve full information.
Anderson and Swain also claim it's hard to fit more information into the 500-word limit set in the law. For that, they could learn from our profession. Their analyses would benefit from editing to make room for important information.
School districts, which must provide voters estimates of the effect of the bond debt on property tax rates, similarly omit key information in the ballot pamphlet. The law says its goal is "presenting to voters the most accurate available information for their use in effecting comparison and exercising judgment in casting their ballots."
But school officials -- in West Contra Costa, that's Superintendent Bruce Harter -- only provide the financial effect of the bond measure on the ballot, not the total tax bill for all bonds. In other words, tell them about the new credit card, but not the balance and payments for the others.
Harter claims most voters already know how much they're paying in taxes for the other bonds. I doubt that's true, especially those who pay property taxes indirectly through rent. But if he's right, what's the harm in telling them again when they're deciding whether to approve more borrowing?
The answer, of course, is Harter doesn't want to remind them for fear some would be less likely to approve the latest measure.
We teach our children to be forthcoming about the truth. Sadly, school and county officials won't do the same.