Photo by Sam Hodgson
The headquarters of the Poway Unified School District.
Since publishing the story on the Poway Unified School District’s billion-dollar bond, we’ve had a bunch of inquiries from all around the state asking one question: Is this going on in my local school district?
Rather than look up every bond in the state, we decided to create a handy do-it-yourself guide so that reporters, taxpayer watchdogs, residents, students and anybody else who’s interested can learn how to look into their local school bond.
While municipal bonds are, by nature, pretty complex, this five-step guide should walk you through the process, steering you towards the public records you need and outlining what to look for.
And, please, let me what you find: email@example.com.
Step One: Find your district in our capital appreciation bond database.
First, you need to know if your school district has even issued this type of bond.
We’ve uploaded a spreadsheet of all the capital appreciation bonds issued in California since 2000 to Google Docs. You can find it here.
All you have to do is search for your school district in the spreadsheet. Do that by simply scrolling down through the list of districts. Or run a search by pressing the Ctrl key and the F key simultaneously and typing in the name of the district. (Mac users, press the Apple key and the F key simultaneously.)
If your district isn’t on the spreadsheet, breathe easy. It hasn’t issued capital appreciation bonds.
Step Two: Find your school district on the EMMA website.
If your district is on the spreadsheet, you’re going to want to take a closer look at those bonds.
You’ll want to find out how and when the bonds will be repaid to investors and how much they will eventually cost taxpayers to repay. All of this is public information.
Here’s how to find it: First make a note of the date the bonds were issued from our spreadsheet.
Then open a new window and go to this website. Note: You will have to accept the terms and conditions of the website.
The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board keeps a record of every bond issued by a municipality in the United States on its Electronic Municipal Market Access website, commonly known as EMMA. This website contains all sorts of good information about each bond.
The easiest way to find the bond you’re interested in on EMMA is to simply type the name of the school district into the search bar (colored in green).
Note: EMMA uses a lot of abbreviations, so it’s best to search just for a few key words, rather than the full name of a school district.
For Example, instead of typing “The San Ysidro School District” into the search bar, just type in “San Ysidro School.”
Step Three: Find the public documents for the exact bond you’re looking for.
Once you’ve found your district on EMMA, the next stage is to find the public documents for the specific bond you want to examine.
The key document you’re looking for is called the bond’s “official statement.” Think of this as the contract for the bonds. It sets out all the rules relating to how the bonds will be sold and how they will be paid back. And, as such, it lays out how much they will ultimately cost taxpayers.
Here’s how to find it:
After you’ve found your district on EMMA, you’re going to see a page that looks like this:
The table on this page lists each of the bonds the district has issued.
To find the bond you’re interested in, you’ll want to search by date.
Look in the column headed “Dated Date.” (Hint: If you click the blue column header “Dated Date,” the table will rearrange into chronological order.) Scan down the column until you see the date you noted from our spreadsheet. Usually, all you need is the year of the bond. (Hint: If there is more than one bond listed in that column, look for the words “capital appreciation bond” or “Cap- Apprec-” in the middle column.)
Once you’ve identified the right bond, click on the gray “Item Description” for it and you will be taken to the page listing all the public documents.
That page looks like this:
Now click on the light blue tab at the top in the middle of the window labeled “Official Statement.” This will bring up a new page with a link to a .pdf document of the bonds’ official statement.
Click on the link and open the document.
Step Four: Read the official statement to find the repayment schedule for the loan.
The official statement should contain all the information you need to establish how the district plans on paying back its loans.
What you really want to find here is the repayment schedule for the loan. That will lay out just how expensive the bonds will eventually be. This is similar to the repayment schedule on a home mortgage. It lays out how much needs to be paid back, and when.
Note: These bond issuances are usually split up into separate groups of bonds known as “series.” Not all of the bonds being sold in one issuance will necessarily be capital appreciation bonds. For example, a district might issue more conventional bonds in its first series, Series A, and then issue capital appreciation bonds in Series B.
You’re only going to be interested in the capital appreciation bonds element of the deal. You therefore need to be careful with which series of bonds you’re looking at. In each official statement I’ve looked at, the series of capital appreciation bonds has been clearly labeled and separate from any other bonds listed on the document.
What you’re looking for is the Debt Service Schedule for the bonds. That’s a table that looks like this:
Step Five: Calculate how much the bond will cost taxpayers.
Now you want to find out exactly how much the bonds are going to eventually cost taxpayers. This involves a little math.
Hint: At this point, you may want to export the data from the repayment schedule in the official statement into Excel or another program, since that will make the calculations easier. Here’s a handy guide to how to do that.
The bond repayment tables are pretty self-explanatory. They lay out just how much the district will have to pay on each series of bonds and when. All you need to do is add up all of the payments (both principal and interest) for the capital appreciation bonds.
Note: Sometimes, however, different series of bonds “overlap” in some repayment years, meaning the district is paying off both groups of bonds in the same year. It’s important to only add the payments for the capital appreciation bonds in order to establish the total amount the bonds will cost taxpayers.
In the example above, you should add together only the figures in the two columns labeled for the principal and accrued interest on the Capital Appreciation Series E Bonds.
By adding together all the payments the district has to make towards paying back its bonds, you’ll be able to figure out how much the deal will actually end up costing taxpayers.
Tell Us What You Find Out
We want to hear what you find and if you have any questions. Please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Go ahead and wonk out.
At the end of the day, this stuff matters. You, your children or your grandchildren are going to have to pay these loans off if you live in a district that has issued capital appreciation bonds.
Whether you own a house or just rent an apartment or a home, you’re going to be paying the taxes to pay for these bonds one way or another.
You might as well spend a few minutes figuring out what you’re letting yourself in for.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at email@example.com or 619.550.5670.
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