The School District’s ‘Bait and Switch’ Bond Problem

The School District’s ‘Bait and Switch’ Bond Problem

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The floodlights above Hoover High School's football field.

In the beginning, there was light. And Talmadge neighborhood residents said it was really annoying.

The neighbors formed a group and called it Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending. Their goal: Scrap the stadium lights at nearby Hoover High School, maintain the neighborhood.

The San Diego Unified School District had used money it borrowed through Proposition S to pay for the lights. The district intended for the lights to improve school facilities and give the school’s athletic teams a chance to host night games.

But neighbors were afraid the district would rent the fields out to whoever would pay, and that the night games would become a regular event. The lights would increase night traffic, they argued, create noise, light pollution, pandemonium.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The floodlights above Hoover High School's football field.

They hired a lawyer, and filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the district for improperly using school bond money to construct the lights and for thumbing its nose at a requirement to properly assess the lights’ impact on the neighborhood.

The residents won. On Sept. 20, the lights went out at Hoover High.

But the verdict may impact more than just football stadiums. It potentially opens the district to future lawsuits, and could ultimately change the game for how the district pitches bond sales to the public.

School board member Scott Barnett, the board’s often-cited numbers whiz who led the charge for the district’s most recent construction bond, Prop. Z, calls the judge’s decision “foolhardy” and said it “changed a half century of bond spending policy and practice.”

The legal and political implications of the ruling could negatively impact the school board’s latitude to make smart fiscal decisions based on the changing needs of the school district, Barnett said.

All parties seem to agree that the district should be allowed to modify, in relatively small ways, the list of projects included on the proposition ballot. For example, if early plans called for a school to receive 400 pieces of audiovisual equipment, but it was later discovered the school only needed 300, the change would be seen as responsible.

But Felipe Monroig, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said he’s OK with reductions to the list, but opposes any additions.

“Using (the ballot’s project list) merely as a guide that can be diverted from is a ‘bait-and-switch’ and a blow for transparency,” Monroig said.

The real question then, isn’t whether the school board can change or modify the ballot — it’s the degree to which the board has latitude when making decisions.

Too Much Information

In 2000, California passed Proposition 39, legislation that lowered the bar for a school district to win bond money, from a two-thirds majority to a 55 percent majority.

In exchange, Prop. 39 required that school districts hoping to sell bonds must formally assess their needs and then provide a list of projects they’ll fund based on that report.

Two recent school bonds passed in San Diego, 2008’s Prop. S and 2012’s Prop. Z, met this requirement to a remarkable degree. In each case, voters received a ballot that ran about 100 pages long — ballots that Barnett said were longer and more detailed than is required by law.

But, Barnett said, the district’s efforts to be transparent may have backfired.

Some San Diegans unrealistically view the original ballot as a static decree of all work that will be accomplished and are using the fine print as ammunition to dismantle specific projects they don’t like, he said.

“If we’re not required to put that level of detail on the ballot, how could a judge fault us for deviating from those details?” he said.

Barnett said there are thousands of individual projects listed on the ballot, many of which aren’t individually broken down. In fact, the original ballot even contains mistakes.

In one spot, Barnett said, there’s a call to repair a gym floor at a school where there wasn’t even a gym.

“Could we be sued over that, too?” he said.

‘The Bottom of the Needs List’

The stadium lighting at Hoover High School isn’t the first project to raise questions over San Diego Unified’s use of bond money.

In the spring of 2010, the City Council OK’d the “schoobrary” at the new downtown library, in which the district paid $20 million to convert two of the building’s floors into a charter school.

At the time, City Councilman Todd Gloria applauded the partnership, saying it was “the way government should work.”

But a school board member at the time, John de Beck, dissented. “It isn’t what we planned to do with the money,” he said. “It’s being log-rolled by people who have a vested interest in downtown.”

The following winter, the district caught flak for using that $20 million on a charter school while crucial improvements, such as wheelchair accessibility at school facilities, waited in backlog.

Similar concerns have been raised about the school board’s plan to use Prop. Z money to build swimming pools, for which it hopes to partner with the YMCA in order to offset operating costs.

The district’s informal two-year spending plan lists five pools that may be built between 2015 and 2017. Other reports, including the U-T’s endorsement of the plan, indicate that as many as 10 pools might be dug in the future.

It’s still too early to measure the precise costs of the joint ventures, but if the pools run $2 million to $3 million a pop, as one estimate suggested, that might be a $30 million dent in the money pot.

Chris Cate, vice president of the Taxpayers Association, said the school board’s priorities are out of whack.

“Look, nobody’s saying we don’t like pools,” he said. “But considering all the concerns of the district, swimming pools are at the bottom of the needs list.”

Barnett said he understands why people might be angry at the school board for what they perceive as a “bait-and-switch,” but said the projects they’re choosing to tackle make good fiscal sense and save money in the long run.

“We are making the decisions in the best interest of the district, which is exactly what you asked us to do when we were elected,” he said.

How vs. What

For Barnett, expanding a project that was already approved by voters is a small detail that ultimately benefits the district.

The stadium lights, downtown charter school and swimming pools are all mentioned in the ballots, after all, even if their ballot descriptions don’t perfectly match the projects they became.

Unfortunately for Barnett and the rest of the school board, not everyone agrees on that relatively broad interpretation of the ballot list.

And for Bob Fellmeth, an attorney and executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law, the small details are a big deal.

Part of why it’s confusing to distinguish an appropriate deviation from a school board overreach comes from the fact that Prop. 39 rules are ambiguous on this point.

To Fellmeth, it’s an issue of “how” versus “what.”

The district has a certain degree of flexibility as to how it spends money to complete projects, Fellmeth said, but it doesn’t have discretion as to what it spends money on.

For example, if the district planned to spend money on 1,500 air-conditioning units, but a new type of technology comes out that revolutionizes the way we condition air, judges wouldn’t begrudge the district for changing the details.

On the other hand, Fellmeth said, “If you say you’re going to build a classroom, then you spend the money on a watchtower, you’ve got problems. That’s why stadium lights are so important.”

Thus, even if the district wasn’t required to include the level of detail it sent out on the ballot, once it’s been voted on, it becomes part of the district’s stated intent. In short, legal questions are framed by what the district said they were going to do, and judges will hold them to that.

“It’s not a blank check,” Fellmeth said. “You can’t say, ‘We’ve already got the money, we can spend it how we want to now. That’s not how it works.”

If the district needs to change plans to a significant degree, “then it’s time to float a new bond,” Fellmeth said.

It’s likely the situations will repeat themselves if the school board and voters don’t find a clear way to handle the disagreements.

Barnett didn’t expound on what the school board’s strategy will be moving forward, but did offer this: “All we can do is do the responsible thing, which is to do the right thing for the right reason.”

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.


Mario Koran

Mario Koran

Mario reports on hospitals, nonprofits and educational institutions, digging into their impact on the greater San Diego community. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

  • 71 Posts
  • 21
    Followers

Show comments
Before you comment, read these simple guidelines on what is not allowed.

21 comments
annie j
annie j

And then we have the Sweetwater Union High School District where allegedly 10 schools have recently been put on a fire watch mandated by the various cities Fire Marshall's - even though the initial Bond Language of Prop O CLEARLY defined that fire alarm upgrades were to be addressed with the Bond Monies - and what do the voters hear as the Districts response 'we are working on it - since 2008, when it was initially submitted to DSA??????????

annie j
annie j subscriber

And then we have the Sweetwater Union High School District where allegedly 10 schools have recently been put on a fire watch mandated by the various cities Fire Marshall's - even though the initial Bond Language of Prop O CLEARLY defined that fire alarm upgrades were to be addressed with the Bond Monies - and what do the voters hear as the Districts response 'we are working on it - since 2008, when it was initially submitted to DSA??????????

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Elections have consequences and as long as the public keeps passing bonds without demanding that monies will be spent prudently on "fixing" the facilities we continually hear are in such dis-repair.
These types of stories should surprise no one.
What is more important? Stadium lights, landscaping, swimming pools or catching up on deferred facility maintenance, heating/air and direct classroom upgrades?

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Elections have consequences and as long as the public keeps passing bonds without demanding that monies will be spent prudently on "fixing" the facilities we continually hear are in such dis-repair.
These types of stories should surprise no one.
What is more important? Stadium lights, landscaping, swimming pools or catching up on deferred facility maintenance, heating/air and direct classroom upgrades?

Dianne Lane
Dianne Lane

Well, it seems Scott Barnett got the point. He said about the judge's ruling: “changed a half century of bond spending policy and practice.” Let's hope the school board moves forward with integrity and transparency in bond spending policy and practice rather than the switch and bait policy and practice of the last half century.

I would like to hear less about football stadium expansion/improvements and swimming pools and more about what the board is accomplishing on the SDUSC's own Site-Specific Bond Project List for Point Loma High School, i.e., and I quote: Improvements to Support Student Learning and Instruction; Improvements to Support Student Health, Safety and Security; Projects to Improve School Accessibility, Code Compliance Upgrades; and, finally. Major Building Systems Repair/Replacement.

At a Scoping Meeting in May, the presentation was ALL about Proposed Stadium and Field Improvements. One sentence about Existing Buildings: "...existing buildings . . . would not be upgraded and are not part of the proposed project.: Huh? And about Buildings in Construction: "... a restroom/concession building is currently under construction . . ." That, BTW, is solely for the stadium.

Then the lawsuit and ruling. At a recent community meeting, Scott Barnett assured us Prop. S money would not be used for stadium lighting, So I asked him what money would be used. His answer: "I don't know." Perhaps he hasn't gotten the point after all.

community_watch
community_watch

Scott Barnett seems to be oblivious to the ground swell of opposition against him on this subject. If the district was upfront with the voters and listed Field Lighting as a specific project in the bond measures for each of the high schools in both Prop S and Prop Z and those bonds passed with Field Lighting listed as a specific project or tethered as a general provision to a listed project and the project went through the required EIR process as required by CEQA, taxpayers would have no issues with the district spending bond money on Field Lighting.

All school board members took a vow to uphold the California constitution. Prop 39 changed our constitution and requires strict accountability of school bonds. Prop S and Prop Z are both Prop 39 bond measures. One of the advantages of Prop 39 school bonds, and why the school districts statewide really like using them, is because they only require a 55% majority of votes rather then the previous requirement of 2/3 majority of votes. One of the strict accountability requirements of a Prop 39 bond measure is to include specific projects that the bond money will go toward so the voters are fully informed of what the money will be spent on when they go to the voter booth to cast their vote. The Prop S project group that the district decided to include Field Lighting was a project group labeled “Projects to Improve School Accessibility, Code Compliance Upgrades”. Under that heading is where you will find two projects related to the football field and stadium renovations; 1) Renovate/replace stadium bleachers, including press box; 2) Upgrade fields, track, and courts for accessibility compliance. Again, both of these projects were presented to the taxpayers as ADA compliance and Code compliance efforts. ADA compliance and Code compliance upgrades are a welcome improvement to all of the school facilities and also one of the reasons that voters cast their vote to approve Prop S and Prop Z. Here is the catch...field lighting is listed only once in the whole 97 page bond measure on page 96 in a general provisions area of the bond where each effort mentioned must be tethered to specific projects listed in the bond measure. Items mentioned in this area must be an expense that is “incidental to and necessary for the completion of the listed projects”. At close to ½ Million dollar expense at Hoover alone, field lighting definitely fails the “incidental” requirement and field lighting is not required for a football field and stadium to be ADA compliant so it also fails the “necessary” requirement: http://www.ada.gov/stadium.txt

From a SDUSD Declaration, in response to Judge Taylor's order, disclosed the following costs associated with field lighting using Prop S money:

Clairemont - $408,431; Madison - $611,590; Morse - $302,154; University City - $803,030; Hoover - $490,968

Total - $2,616,173

The same issue holds true with the mention of Swimming Pools in Prop Z. Ironically swimming pools is listed only once, on page 106, and it is in the same general provisions area along with field lighting. Again, that would mean that there is a specific project listed in Prop Z that requires a multimillion dollar swimming pool to be erected to complete that specific listed project. Good luck...you won't find such a project in Prop Z.

The truth of the matter is that the District purposely didn’t include Field Lighting and Swimming Pools as specific projects because they knew that the controversial projects would affect their chances of getting voter approval of both Prop S and Prop Z. The district rolled the dice and hid it in the fine print hoping no one would object.

Learn more at:
http://www.tfasbs.org/ http://propointloma.wordpress.com/
No Stadium Commercialization, No Additional Night Events!http://propointloma.wordpress.com/For Quality Education and Neighborhood Preservation Pro Point Loma is your neighborhood group concerned with the preservation of the uniquely suburban-feeling neighborhood of Loma Portal. Our current focus is on the expansion and commercialization of...TFASBShttp://www.tfasbs.org/Check out http://tfasbs.org! Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond SpendingAdahttp://www.ada.gov/stadium.txt

Sally Smith
Sally Smith

The community is right. Principals are collecting rent for fields and other school facilities without any knowledge of the San Diego Unified school district Rental Office of who is using them or how often. The district cannot or will not control principals and principals do not adhere to district policy regarding rental of school sites. The community will not know the true usage of the various school facilities. Just check out the SDUSD audits. The official rental records of the district do not reflect the actual usage of the taxpayer school facilities.

One citizen was told she could not rent the grass fields for her soccer business because her business is not a non-profit. Records contradict what she was told by SDUSD staff because plenty of for-profit businesses are using school facilities - wink! wink! it's who you know on the inside. She doesn't understand why she can be squeezed out of business by for-profit businesses who are granted use of school facilities and are making money hand-over-fist with no effort whatsoever. The school district provides all the customers - with a waiting list - to those lucky businesses and no need to spend any money on marketing as the district website is used for free advertising. It is quite a benefit to use school facilities - a huge savings on rental costs that other businesses have to pay.The School Board had no comment whatsoever when the businesswoman brought her concerns in public comment.

Sally Smith
Sally Smith subscriber

The community is right. Principals are collecting rent for fields and other school facilities without any knowledge of the San Diego Unified school district Rental Office of who is using them or how often. The district cannot or will not control principals and principals do not adhere to district policy regarding rental of school sites. The community will not know the true usage of the various school facilities. Just check out the SDUSD audits. The official rental records of the district do not reflect the actual usage of the taxpayer school facilities.

One citizen was told she could not rent the grass fields for her soccer business because her business is not a non-profit. Records contradict what she was told by SDUSD staff because plenty of for-profit businesses are using school facilities - wink! wink! it's who you know on the inside. She doesn't understand why she can be squeezed out of business by for-profit businesses who are granted use of school facilities and are making money hand-over-fist with no effort whatsoever. The school district provides all the customers - with a waiting list - to those lucky businesses and no need to spend any money on marketing as the district website is used for free advertising. It is quite a benefit to use school facilities - a huge savings on rental costs that other businesses have to pay.The School Board had no comment whatsoever when the businesswoman brought her concerns in public comment.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

The "unscrupulous diner's dilemma" explains why the neighbors don't want the school district to rent the field out to whoever will pay. They would pay 100% of the price in traffic, light pollution, noise, crime, etc. while the financial benefit would be spread across all the other schools in the district.Unscrupulous diner's dilemmahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unscrupulous_diner%27s_dilemmaIn game theory, the Unscrupulous diner's dilemma (or just Diner's dilemma) is an n-player prisoner's dilemma. The situation imagined is that several individuals go out to eat, and prior to ordering they agree to split the check equally between all of...

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

The "unscrupulous diner's dilemma" explains why the neighbors don't want the school district to rent the field out to whoever will pay. They would pay 100% of the price in traffic, light pollution, noise, crime, etc. while the financial benefit would be spread across all the other schools in the district.Unscrupulous diner's dilemmahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unscrupulous_diner%27s_dilemmaIn game theory, the Unscrupulous diner's dilemma (or just Diner's dilemma) is an n-player prisoner's dilemma. The situation imagined is that several individuals go out to eat, and prior to ordering they agree to split the check equally between all of...

Marilynn Gallagher
Marilynn Gallagher

Overspending for Facilities is just as prevalent as the cronyism:

Carlsbad just built a new High School Football stadium for 18 million dollars- Our neighbor Army Navy Academy built a Football stadium / Gym,/ weightroom,/ softball field,/ baseball field for 11 million dollars. Do the math. It is amazing how much money it takes to PLAN and CONSULT for the building of a project. It becomes monopoly money with absolutely no boundaries. Funny, a lot of the people in our administration are not from Carlsbad, so maybe that is why they don't care. It isn't there tax money.

As for the cronyism in the Carlsbad Facilities department, one of our coaches started a business called "Friday night lights" here in Carlsbad. He uses School.District playgrounds for his business. He has several hundred kids
signed up for $180.00 each, and then another $250.00 per team on top of that. It is a great event that we enjoy immensely, However, The school fields are flooded for several days after the event and it effects the kids at the school. Lightning Soccer and LCYO baseball have repeatedly asked to rent these same fields out to no avail. This kind of favoritism is rampant thruoghout the district.

john stump
john stump

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

By this logic, SD neighborhoods should never have parades or street festivals because they might bring in the wrong element in terms of light pollution, noise, crime, etc.

Can the district just set a limit on how many events could be held at night at that field and how late they can go? And shouldn't people who live near a school have to deal with the fact that they live next to a school with all that entails?

john stump
john stump subscriber

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

By this logic, SD neighborhoods should never have parades or street festivals because they might bring in the wrong element in terms of light pollution, noise, crime, etc.

Can the district just set a limit on how many events could be held at night at that field and how late they can go? And shouldn't people who live near a school have to deal with the fact that they live next to a school with all that entails?

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

@Janet Shelton "Every day it is open, the street is completely blocked both ways by parents trying to get onto a very short street to pick up kids."

That would be very easy to fix with a reservation system.

Janet Shelton
Janet Shelton

A parade or a street festival happens a few times a year. Events happen far more often and are in addition to games. And define "all that it entails." These events don't have to be for the purpose of educating students. Also, the lights and events got tacked on after people bought and from what I have read without adequate public involvement in the process. I live near a school which was built 20 years after I moved here. Every day it is open, the street is completely blocked both ways by parents trying to get onto a very short street to pick up kids. People have to remember to drive 2 miles around or sit there stuck in the mess with no way to turn around. There is zero enforcement to make them leave room to pass. I just accept it, but it has made me more sympathetic to people who live around schools. Personally, I think it's sad that they are building stadiums and adding lighting instead of improving infrastructure for education. The public will be a lot harder to convince the next time a bond comes up for vote.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

@Randy Dotinga "By this logic, SD neighborhoods should never have parades or street festivals because they might bring in the wrong element in terms of light pollution, noise, crime, etc."

If SD neighborhoods not only paid all the costs but also kept all the revenue, then they would be more likely to have street festivals than if all the revenue had to go back to the city.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

@Janet Shelton "Every day it is open, the street is completely blocked both ways by parents trying to get onto a very short street to pick up kids."

That would be very easy to fix with a reservation system.

Janet Shelton
Janet Shelton subscriber

A parade or a street festival happens a few times a year. Events happen far more often and are in addition to games. And define "all that it entails." These events don't have to be for the purpose of educating students. Also, the lights and events got tacked on after people bought and from what I have read without adequate public involvement in the process. I live near a school which was built 20 years after I moved here. Every day it is open, the street is completely blocked both ways by parents trying to get onto a very short street to pick up kids. People have to remember to drive 2 miles around or sit there stuck in the mess with no way to turn around. There is zero enforcement to make them leave room to pass. I just accept it, but it has made me more sympathetic to people who live around schools. Personally, I think it's sad that they are building stadiums and adding lighting instead of improving infrastructure for education. The public will be a lot harder to convince the next time a bond comes up for vote.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

@Randy Dotinga "By this logic, SD neighborhoods should never have parades or street festivals because they might bring in the wrong element in terms of light pollution, noise, crime, etc."

If SD neighborhoods not only paid all the costs but also kept all the revenue, then they would be more likely to have street festivals than if all the revenue had to go back to the city.