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Guest Opinion: Vote 'No' on $889M in expensive, unfair bond measures

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During a time of great uncertainty where many residents struggle to put groceries on the table and gas in the tank, we will be asked to vote on two additional school taxes in the form of $889 million in bond measures. To state the obvious, this is a terrible time to add new taxes to residents. But it’s never a good time to add bad taxes, which is the situation we’re faced with.

About two weeks ago, I received a flyer in the mail titled “Redwood City School District: A Summer Update” with a picture of a child in front of a computer. Inside, it became clear this is a $298 million bond measure for school facilities. It is less clear why this additional money is needed on top of the $193 million they already got in 2015 for facilities, especially since enrollment has declined precipitously since then. Hopefully, we shall learn more at the community meeting the district trustees are hosting on Wednesday, Aug. 10. 

Chris-Robell
Chris Robell, Redwood City Resident and Retired CFO. courtesy

Then, the next day, I received another flyer in the mail titled “Preparing for the Future” from Sequoia Union High School. Guess what they envision for the future?  Another bond measure and more taxes. 

I carefully watched the Sequoia Union Board of Trustees meeting last Wednesday, where they discussed the bond measure. It was obvious they don’t yet have a clear plan on exactly what they need.  After some discussion and a presentation by the facilities manager, they simply agreed that installing air conditioning in classrooms was a top priority.  This seemed odd to me, given nearby districts, with better test scores don’t have A/C and do fine. Students aren’t at school during the summer. 

The SUHSD trustees then discussed, with their polling consultant, how high they could tax voters but not lose the needed 55% approval threshold.  Wouldn’t you think the trustees would first identify a clear strategy for improving student performance, then develop a bottom up plan tied to the strategy with specific dollar amounts?  Unfortunately, this was not done, and the conversation was all about how much could be successfully extracted from taxpayers. 

At multiple points in the meeting, they mentioned how exciting this bond measure topic is. I don’t think taxing residents should be considered “exciting.”

They decided to go with a $591 million bond measure and then moved on to the next topic:  a raise for the Superintendent. This felt completely tone deaf to me. 

Needless to say, I abandoned any hope that the board of trustees was acting like stewards of taxpayer funds. If a bad economic environment and lack of clear planning and budgeting aren’t enough, it gets worse.

These taxes are in the form of bond measures (not parcel taxes), so they are anti-housing and would affect everyone:

  • Tenants would see permanent rent increases (landlords will pass along the extra property tax). 
  • Homeowners would see more significant property tax bills with no possibility for exemptions regardless of need.  Seniors and those on SSI will just have to suck it up and pay. Someone with an assessed value of, say, $1 million would pay an extra $380/year, increasing 2% annually for up to 40 years. That’s $22,953 in additional taxes over 40 years, and because of 2017 tax law changes, it’s generally not deductible.
     
  • Prospective homebuyers would be priced out of the market even more. Bond measures tax homeowners based on assessed value (not market value), effectively “doubling down” on Prop 13. So recent homeowners pay a disproportionately high share of tax. Who wants to be taxed 20 times what your neighbor is for no good reason?  Bond measures are inherently unfair in how to tax and exacerbate income inequality.

Unlike parcel taxes, bond measures can only be used for buildings and infrastructure, not for teachers or academic programs by law. Sequoia Union High School District has not shown improved student outcomes despite five past bond measures amounting to $633 million since 1996. Taxing us another $591 million for money that cannot be used for teachers or academic programs and with no clear plan or specifically identified student outcome improvement seems unwise.

Finally, bond measures are an extremely expensive form of financing. Taxpayers' interest payments far exceed the amount financed and provide no benefit to students. Bankers and investors, along with contractors and developers, are the ones who make money. We, the taxpayers, lose.

Instead of asking voters to approve $889 million in expensive, unfair bond measures with unclear plans, school district trustees should first carefully determine what is exactly needed to improve student outcomes and the associated cost. Then, aggressively seek funds from Sacramento, where there is an unprecedented more than $90 billion state surplus. If, after all that, more money is truly needed, then and only then a parcel tax—instead of a bond measure—could be considered. A parcel tax is fairer (since everyone pays equally), funds can be used for teachers and academic programs (unlike bond measures), and it is much less expensive (no interest payments paid by taxpayers). 

Absent such changes, send the school district trustees a clear message that you don’t want your money wasted. Vote “NO” on both bond measures. 

Chris Robell, Redwood City Resident and Retired CFO, can be reached at chris_robell@yahoo.com