As school districts across San Diego County gear up for a new round of bond measures aimed at building or fixing schools, taxpayer watchdogs released a broad report today on how successful — or unsuccessful — their past bonds have been.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association studied building and renovation efforts in 12 local school districts, and rated schools on whether they kept their promises to voters, how closely oversight groups monitored projects, and how easily the Average Joe can find information on the projects online.

The top-scoring districts on overall bond performance — which is measured by whether the district built all the schools or completed all the renovations it promised to — were Sweetwater Union High, San Diego Community College, San Diego Unified, Grossmont Healthcare, and Rancho Santa Fe.

Yet some of the same districts scored low on oversight: Sweetwater and Rancho Santa Fe were found to have little input from their oversight committees, scoring 47 percent and 40 percent respectively. Explaining that paradox, association President Lani Lutar said the bonds had done well, but oversight committees would have been powerless to help if problems had erupted with construction costs or timing.

The opposite phenomenon happened in Poway Unified, where oversight was applauded but the bond failed to deliver, after “unprecedented cost inflation,” said policy analyst Tom Aaron. Poway’s troubles were due to “uncontrollable costs,” the study found, and might have been worse if Poway’s oversight were lax.

Four districts were singled out for avoidable cost overruns: Escondido Union, La Mesa Police and Fire, Vista Unified and San Diego Unified. Among them, only San Diego Unified was able to recover — a turnaround Lutar attributed to the hiring of former Rear Admiral Lou Smith to take over the bond program, after initial delays.

The key to a successful bond is planning, Lutar said. If districts have reliable cost estimates, specific projects, and a good understanding of what’s feasible, they’re far more likely to deliver on their promises. And the best way to do that, Lutar said, is to get help from outside experts.

Lutar said the up-front investment in consultants pays off later, in more efficient projects. But in a tough budget year for schools, convincing districts to pony up for consultants will be especially difficult.

“There’s so much political pressure to direct general fund dollars toward teacher pay, not toward administrative [functions] or consultants,” Lutar said. “This year, that pressure will be on more than ever.”

Check out the full report from the here.

EMILY ALPERT

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