Escondido Union School District, which includes Mission Middle School, was one of many San Diego County districts that failed to pass a proposed school bond on the March ballot. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On the heels of uncharacteristic ballot box losses last week, leaders of several local school districts are eyeing the November election for a second shot to pass a school bond.

Bonds put forward by the Cajon Valley Union School District, Chula Vista Elementary School District, Escondido Union School District, Lakeside Union School District and the Poway Unified School District came up short of the 55 percent approval needed to pass a tax hike for school facility projects, according to the county registrar’s Sunday tally.

Just two local bonds passed this election – one for nearly $53 million and another for $55.5 million – and both were floated by the tiny San Ysidro School District.

“Congratulations to San Ysidro School District on their community win and to my colleagues in Chula Vista, Escondido, Lakeside, and Poway… Stay the course!  We got this!” said Cajon Valley’s superintendent David Miyashiro in an email.

Miyashiro believes low local voter turnout was a factor in Cajon Valley’s bond failure, but he hopes to see different results later this year.

“Staff will recommend moving forward in November based on the severe needs outlined in our Facilities Master Plan,” he wrote.

Before the March election, Poway Unified’s superintendent Marian Kim Phelps had also pledged to bring the bond back in November if it failed in March and said failure in November would lead to budget cuts.

“We do know without funds from a bond measure and state matching funds, there will need to be some tough budget decisions as our facilities continue to deteriorate,” Poway’s spokeswoman Christine Paik said in an email after the election. “We will always need to prioritize the safety and security of our students.”

Chula Vista schools’ spokesman Anthony Millican said with 53 percent approval, hope remains their latest bond, Measure M, will pass. Local voters passed separate bonds for the district in 2012 and 2018. If Measure M doesn’t pass though, Millican said dialogue with stakeholders will begin to discuss “what could be refined in putting forward a similar measure in the future,” and they haven’t ruled out a November 2020 measure.

Andy Johnsen, superintendent of the Lakeside Union School District, also hasn’t ruled out a November bond attempt.

We were disappointed with the outcome of the election, as our facility needs are great and addressing them will only get more expensive over time,” Johnsen said in an email. “Lakeside residents love their schools and have traditionally supported these efforts, so our board will need to consider next steps and whether to try again in November.”

The local districts regrouping after their bond failures have plenty of company this election. As it turns out, many voters beyond San Diego County also weren’t feeling love for their local school bonds.

According to lists published by and the anti-Tax group CalTax, dozens of local school bonds were on track to fail this election. CalTax said in a release Friday at least half – 64 out of 121 local school bonds in California – already failed and 36 bonds were still too close to call. By contrast, in 2018, 84 percent of the 151 school bonds on the ballot passed across the state, Ballotpedia reported.

California voters also appear to have shot down the only state measure on their ballot last week – the $15 billion Proposition 13 school facility bond. Doing so marked the first time a state school bond has failed in 25 years, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In the wake of widespread school bond losses, bond boosters and detractors are debating what the outcome means for future tax pitches, but there’s some agreement about how we got here.

‘Bond Fatigue Is Real’

Tax critics say the recent school bond election results are evidence of California voter tax fatigue and called it a wakeup call for government officials.

“Voters are tired of the same story over and over again,” said Tony Krvaric, chair of the Republican Party of San Diego who wrote several arguments against local bond measures, in a text message.

“We witnessed something that has become all too rare in politics: taxpayers taking a stand,” said a statement from Haney Hong, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which endorsed multiple local bond measures this election. “No one is against funding our schools, but taxpayers have grown understandably weary of government asking for blank checks and fighting the idea that funding should have strings attached. Taxpayers are tired of promises and platitudes. We now need to see, in our classrooms, the results from the tax dollars we have already paid.”

David Wolfe, legislative director for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which opposed Prop. 13, said, “This should really be a wakeup call for state and local politicians that tax and bond fatigue is real and is happening, and it’s not just happening with the early absentees.”

Wolfe called the bond failures up and down the state, “stunning … These are not bonds failing with 52, 53 percent. Some of these didn’t even get a majority vote. I’ve never seen that before.”

“The election results reinforce recent polling that said Californians across the political spectrum believe their state and local taxes are too high,” CalTax President Robert Gutierrez said in a release.

But school bond boosters are wary of drawing wide-reaching conclusions and remain confident school facility bonds are still winnable issues with voters with better education and other changes next time around.

Lack of a Ground Game

Millican, the Chula Vista schools’ spokesman, said the close results there were still encouraging.

“There was essentially no campaign for Measure M, and one could argue those are great numbers given so little campaigning was conducted on its behalf,” he said.

A failure to engage voters about the bonds before the election could have been the kiss of death for some measures, said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party.

“The ability of individual campaigns to educate on the issues seemed to be lacking,” he said. “It’s important for the proponents to not take voters for granted and to really build coalitions when they are building these propositions … Voters have telegraphed that they don’t have an appetite for this at this moment.”

Rodriguez-Kennedy said voter turnout isn’t to blame, because more voters cast ballots this election than in some past primaries. Turnout just appears lower percentage-wise due to automatic California voter registration that took effect in 2018, boosting the number of registered voters.

As of Sunday, 40 percent of San Diego County’s 1.8 million registered voters cast a ballot this election, higher than the 34 percent out of nearly 21 million registered California voters that voted in this election, according to the latest tally on the secretary of state’s website Monday.

But Rodriguez-Kennedy does see another factor that could have hurt the school bonds: “A lot of attention is focused on the presidential race, and I suspect voters may have focused solely on that and may not have had the patience or the will to do the bonds.”

A lack of a ground game from Prop. 13 supporters is part of what was also lacking in the state bond pitch, said Wolfe, with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The association spent $250,000 on radio ads against Prop. 13, an amount that paled in comparison to the $10 million campaign supporting the bond, which ran television ads but didn’t do much else, Wolfe said.

Supporters and detractors of the 2020 state school facility bond seem to agree on other reasons it failed to get the simple majority it needed.

Both camps agree the bond’s numbering – shared with the landmark Prop. 13 property tax cap from the ‘70s – caused confusion, although they disagree about how much of a role that played.

“A lot of time was spent (by advocates) explaining the difference between this Prop. 13 and the previous Prop. 13 … and not enough time was spent making the case for how Prop. 13 would improve the academic and social experience, as well as the health and safety, of California students,” said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association, which supported the measure.

Flint and Wolfe, with the Howard Jarvis group, both pointed to the size of the $15 billion bond as another negative. Flint said the inclusion of $6 billion for higher education, rather than a strict K-12 bond, “could have perhaps created some sticker shock as well.”

Flint said other factors, like the reduction in developer fees and the increase to local bond debt caps included in Prop. 13, also complicated the pitch. Wolfe also pointed to the bond’s complexity – citing those same changes – as another factor working against the proposal.

The developer fees reduction to incentivize housing near transit “made some question whether this was a giveaway and whether the bond was fully designed to benefit schools as opposed to special interests … it complicated the argument for Prop. 13 and created an opening” for critics, Flint said. And raising the local school bond debt limits “made it much harder to argue this wasn’t a tax increase for property owners, and it wasn’t, but it created a nuance that had to be explained.”

As they say, “confused voters vote no,” Flint said.

Some academics have also said economic worry stemming from stock market volatility and the circulating coronavirus could also have played a role.

Flint said he doesn’t believe the election outcome reflects a larger trend, though he thinks the “uninspired school bond performance at the state level did present a drag on local bonds.”

“This bill was a very particular package and, in some ways, was a bit of a Frankenstein, and I wouldn’t prophesy any lessons for how voters feel about school bonds generally … I don’t think voter sentiments have changed fundamentally,” Flint said. “We have decades of history that say ‘better schools’ is a winning issue with voters. When you make it more complicated than that with elaborate measures, we do ourselves a disservice by creating confusion, which scares voters away and provides opportunities for our adversaries to attack.”

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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