RICHMOND -- West Contra Costa schools trustees took a key step to implement one tax while they began making plans to put another on the ballot at their meeting Wednesday night.

The school board voted to proceed with previously announced plans to seek a state Board of Education waiver of the requirement to limit its bond debt to 2.5 percent of the assessed valuation of real estate in the district.

West Contra Costa is seeking to raise its limit to 5 percent of assessed valuation for 12 years to allow the sale of school construction bonds authorized under Measure E, the bond measure passed by district voters on Nov. 6.

The district has an assessed valuation of $23.6 billion, giving it a bonding limit of $591 million under the 2.5 percent rule. It now has $797 million in bonds outstanding, so it would be unable to sell Measure E bonds without the waiver.

Measure E bonds will be used to complete current construction projects and repair or replace a set of schools judged as dilapidated by district officials.

The district has the power to issue $280 million in bonds authorized by Measure D in 2010, which are covered under a waiver it obtained in 2011.

"We'll be pulling from both measures to keep the bond maturities as short as possible," said Dave Olson, managing director of KNN Public Finance in Oakland, who advises the district on its bond program.


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West Contra Costa has had three debt limit waivers over the past 12 years, the highest in the state. One of the waivers, granted in 2002, was never used, said Martin Coyne, a district executive director of business services.

KNN is predicting the state board will consider the waiver application in March or May. Approval at either time will enable the district to issue Measure E bonds beginning in July, Olson said.

Alicia Minyen, a director of the Hercules-based California League of Bond Oversight Committees, spoke against the waiver application.

Minyen told trustees that the district is taking on too much debt and already has sufficient bonding authorization under Measure D.

"You should reconsider the waiver application until the Measure D waiver expires in 2020," Minyen said.

Board member Charles Ramsey countered by saying that property owners are paying lower taxes than the amounts authorized by two previous bond measures because of lower interest rates and the way the bond issues have been structured.

The board also took a preliminary step to give the district more money for operating expenses by commissioning a poll to test voter enthusiasm for a third parcel tax measure in a year.

A new ballot measure would follow up on the success of Measure G, the parcel tax extension passed by voters on Nov. 6. Measure K, a parcel tax extension and increase, failed by slightly more than a percentage point on the June 2012 ballot.

"It's time to have another chat with our voters," said board President Madeline Kronenberg.

The district's polling firm, San Mateo-based Godbe Research, will interview 800 potential voters to gauge their reactions to a two- to four-year tax based on square footage of property.

Such a tax would tide the district over until 2016, when a proposal in the state Legislature to lower the vote required to pass parcel taxes to 55 percent might take effect, Ramsey said.

Ramsey suggested the district might increase its chances for victory by placing the tax on the same ballot as a special election to fill a City Council vacancy in Richmond.

A council election would increase turnout in Richmond, which has traditionally been kind to district tax measures, he said.

Earlier in the evening, the board recognized the sixth-grade class and staff at Olinda Elementary in Richmond for raising more than $1,000 to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.