Leaky roofs. Frayed wiring. Broken ramps. Three years ago San Diego Unified had a long list of needed repairs. It estimated it would need $755 million to tackle all of them over the next decade.
The problem threatened to undercut political support for the school district if it asked taxpayers for more money.
Taking care of repairs is seen as a sign of financial prudence. Financial hawks want to see that governments are spending their money wisely before they ask for more.
So before San Diego Unified asked voters to pay for a new bond to build and renovate schools, it came up with a plan to defeat its repair problem. That won over the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which gave its blessing to their $2.1 billion school renovation bond.
Fast forward three years. San Diego Unified is stuck with the same problem. And it is again looking to taxpayers to fix it. But this time around, it might not be able to sway the Taxpayers Association and other critics who argue the district broke its promises to keep schools in shape.
The school district has fallen behind on its praised plan. Most schools are in worse shape than before. It will cost an estimated $137 million more to fix them because repairs were pushed back. They could be pushed back even more if the school district has to pause school construction and renovation, as is being contemplated. So the school board is now exploring whether to ask taxpayers to pay for another bond — again to tackle its nagging repairs.
The school repair boondoggle comes down to three things:
• Taxes are bringing in less money than expected to fix up schools.
• The school board decided to use bond money to install technology and build new facilities before turning to repairs.
• And the school district has spent less than it planned on repairs to help save money in its day-to-day budget, which pays for teachers and treasured programs.
All in all, San Diego Unified had hoped to devote an average of $69 million annually to repairs and upkeep for a decade. Last year it only chipped in $38 million.
The problem is a classic one for governments. Nobody comes down to the school board to plead for new carpets or better plumbing. So repairs get pushed to the back burner when money is scarce. But the problem doesn’t go away. It only gets more expensive.
“Deferred maintenance is not sexy. It’s not visible. It’s boring,” said Brian Pollard, who sits on a committee overseeing school construction. “They can delay it all they want. But that monster isn’t going anywhere. It’s just getting bigger and bigger.”
Part of the problem hinged on the economy: San Diego Unified had planned on getting more money in taxes every year, expecting that housing values would rise annually. Instead they fell or stayed flat. Now, it has less money with which to issue bonds.
The school district also chose to put other things ahead of repairs. The board put a big chunk of the dwindling dollars into new technology. Kids got little laptops. Teachers have flashy digital whiteboards.
The idea was to revamp classrooms to be more interactive and engaging for kids.
“The question was, what school improvement would have the most direct effect on student achievement?” school board member John Lee Evans said.
Putting technology first also helped San Diego Unified nab nearly $40 million in federal money that might not be available later. The school district jumped on new buildings to relieve overcrowding and to help teens prepare for careers like broadcasting or green construction. It wanted to cash in on state money that was available for those things. Because there was little money left to do much else, repairs were shoved back in the schedule.
That comes at a price. School repairs become more expensive when they are put off. School district officials estimated this summer that they would need to spend $137 million more than the $691 million it had originally planned to get schools into decent shape in the future.
Now money for school construction is lagging so much that San Diego Unified fears it will have to stop new work for a while. When the school district planned for the new bond, it knew it still had to pay the bills for an earlier bond that voters passed more than a decade ago.
The school board now wants to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for another bond. The new bond could pay for overdue repairs, allowing the school district to avoid dipping deeper into its ordinary funding to pay for repairs at the expense of popular programs and beloved teachers. It could also pay to replace the computers that the existing bond just paid for, which threaten to put a new burden on its day-to-day budget.
The Taxpayers Association has already balked at the idea. It dislikes the idea of using borrowed money to maintain schools or pay for computers that will only last a few years. Borrowing costs: San Diego Unified will ultimately pay somewhere between $8 billion and $19 billion to borrow the $2.1 billion bond.
“It’s like having a perpetual credit card,” said Leonard Pinson, who sits on the watchdog committee and shares the concerns. “Where does it all come crashing down?”
Barnett, who once led the taxpayer group, agrees that paying for computers that will be useless in a few years with bonds that his children will have to pay off is “insane.” But he argued that a new bond could actually provide money to keep replacing computers over and over for decades, making it sustainable.
Besides, he said, “there’s no alternative.”
Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at email@example.com.
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