Last November, voters OK’d San Diego Unified’s bid to borrow $2.8 billion to “repair neighborhood schools and charter schools with funding the state cannot take away.”
Prop. Z — the “San Diego Neighborhood Schools Classroom Safety and Repair Measure of 2012” — passed after being touted as necessary to keep the district’s buildings from falling down.
Now the district is on track to build as many as 10 new swimming pools with bond money.
Wait, what? Can they do that?
The pool spending is likely kosher because of the fine print.
The district didn’t go out of its way to promote how the spending would boost aquatic opportunities. But it appears unlikely that it will face the kind of lawsuit that snagged the school district’s 2008 bond measure.
Here’s a rundown of what’s happening with the pools and how this spending could be allowed.
A Paucity of Pools
At the moment, there’s only one pool in the San Diego school district. It’s at La Jolla High and it’s funded by private money.
As our news partner NBC San Diego reports, the district plans to use bond money to construct pools but let another organization, perhaps the YMCA, maintain and operate them.
Pools are expected to be built in or near Madison, Patrick Henry and Mira Mesa high schools and at middle schools near San Diego High and Mission Bay High. The district also wants to partner with existing pools near Point Loma and Scripps Ranch high schools, according to U-T San Diego.
A news story in U-T San Diego hinted at a possible disconnect between a district that’s declared itself to be in financial trouble and its spending on pools: “On the surface, it seems almost inconceivable.”
But pools also provide opportunities for athletics and swimming instruction, the latter of which is important in inner-city areas where many kids don’t learn to swim.
There’s another bonus to the pools: They’ll be shared with the public and take some of the strain off the city’s 13 public pools, whose hours are vulnerable to cutbacks.
Devil in the Details
On last November’s ballot, the summary for Prop. Z — limited to no more than 75 words — explained the money would be spent on “Repairing deteriorating 60-year-old classrooms, libraries, wiring, plumbing, bathrooms and leaky roofs; Removing hazardous mold, asbestos, and lead; Upgrading fire safety systems/doors; Upgrading classroom instructional technology, labs and vocational education classrooms.”
Nothing in that language has anything to do with pools.
The almost 100 pages of details the district paid to include in the ballot pamphlet that went to voters, however, does have one reference to pools. It’s from a section of the proposition text called “General Provisions” (emphasis added): “Repair, upgrade, modify, expand, refinish, replace and construct site improvements, including off-street parking areas, pickup/dropoff, signage, paths, sidewalks and walkways, canopies, hard courts (student play areas), athletic play fields, swimming pools, landscaping, irrigation, permanent athletic field equipment and facilities (including basketball standards, goals and goalposts, backstops), field lighting, etc.”
The proposition text also lists projects by individual school — this is the “Project List” — but doesn’t specify that pools will be built at them. Madison High is expected to get a pool, for example, but the text just says funds can be used there to “improve physical education, athletic facilities and turf fields.”
The listing of projects for a similar measure, 2008’s Prop. S, snarled the district in a lawsuit that it eventually lost (although the district has promised to appeal). We wrote about the lawsuit earlier this year, explaining got the district was ultimately blocked from using bond money for projects like floodlights at school stadiums that weren’t specifically mentioned in the project list. A group of residents had sued, saying the projects weren’t listed in that bond so voters didn’t know about them.
This time around, the spending on pools hasn’t been roasted publicly to any great extent, although the San Diego County Taxpayers Association did oppose Prop. Z as a whole and is unhappy with the pool funding.
“Our concern is spending Prop Z money six months after its passage on building new pools when it was billed as a school repair measure,” said Felipe Monroig, the association’s president and CEO. But the association doesn’t plan to sue.
The U-T found one parent, attorney Sally Smith, who was miffed: “You’ve got to be kidding me. What about fixing the leaky roofs and restrooms?”
From Swimsuits to Lawsuits?
Can someone successfully sue because the ballot summary doesn’t include even a whisper about the prospect of pools? Probably not, according to two attorneys who specialize in election law.
Judges understand that ballot titles and descriptions are limited by space, said Fredric D. Woocher, a Los Angeles attorney. “Courts have also recognized that a ballot title and summary can be so inaccurate or misleading as to constitute possible grounds for overturning the measure, but the standard is a very tough one — essentially denying the voters ‘due process’ by having them vote on something that was materially different than what was described in the voters’ pamphlet.”
Jim Sutton, an attorney in San Francisco, said the proposition’s full text “definitely” trumps a ballot summary. But he thinks the ballot summary in this case “is arguably misleading” because it doesn’t say bond funds can be used for “non-instructional items.”
“But don’t know that it’s so off that a court would have ordered it changed,” he said. “It would take a lot more than the ballot question to file a legal challenge claiming that the school district may not spend bond money on pools.”