San Diego Unified School District is placing a bond on November’s ballot that would allow it to borrow $3.2 billion to fund a variety of projects across its over 200 educational facilities and to be paid off by extending the existing districtwide property tax of six cents per $100 of assessed value.
Over the past 14 years, the district has frequently turned to bonds to fund construction, renovation and rehabilitation efforts on campuses, as well as to purchase technological infrastructure like computers. Measure U would be the fifth school bond measure passed by voters in less than 25 years, and bring the total raised by those measures to over $13 billion.
The district has listed a slew of spending priorities for the new money, and some of them bear a striking resemblance to those in past bonds.
What Is a Local School Bond?
Local school bonds are measures voted on by citizens that allow schools to borrow money that is then paid back by levying local property taxes. General obligation bonds can only be spent on facilities projects, as opposed to staffing costs, and have historically represented the largest source of funding for infrastructure projects – construction, school renovation and technology upgrades. Bonds require 55 percent of voters to approve them. Voters typically approve them, statewide and at San Diego Unified.
The six cents per $100 of assessed value property tax for district residents amounts to a $480 annual tax on the region’s $800,000 median priced home.
What Will Measure U Funds be Spent on?
Voters may feel a bit of déjà vu when they read the language of Measure U, known as the “San Diego Student Safety, Health, and School Repair Measure.” Measure YY, which voters approved by in 2018 was called the “San Diego Neighborhood School Repair and Student Safety Measure.” Both bonds were pitched as being integral to the district’s efforts to improve student safety.
Some of the similarities aren’t necessarily a huge surprise because of the stipulation that bond funds can only be spent on infrastructure needs as opposed to, say, staffing. Still, some of the priorities listed in the approved motions for each measure are strikingly similar. The ballot language for both the 2018 and 2022 bonds list asbestos removal, improving various school security elements, fixing plumbing and upgrading classrooms.
SDUSD Supervisors have repeatedly referenced the need to secure schools amid persistent school shootings as a primary motivating factor in pushing for this bond. But even given the messaging about safety, only around $296 million of the of the over $3 billion the 2022 bond would raise is earmarked for security upgrades.
“The safety and security of students and staff is the district’s highest priority. This is why that category of work is listed front and center in the bond description narrative,” Maureen Magee, SDUSD’s communications director wrote in an email. “The amount of money allocated to any given category of bond-funded school facility improvements relates directly to the cost of those improvements, not their priority.”
Magee also added that a share of the $528 million the bond would allocate to charter schools would also include security upgrades, and members of the district charter school advisory committee had formed an ad-hoc committee that will provide recommendations on how to implement that funding.
Some of the security-related priorities the $296 million would pay for are improving classroom security, communications systems and cameras and improving or installing door locks and creating controlled entry points. The district has already spent over $120 million from its previous three bonds, and plans to spend $250 million by 2024, on such improvements.
Also included in the safety priorities is removing asbestos and mold, replacing plumbing with lead solders and improving the structural integrity of school buildings in the case of earthquakes.
Some of the other big-ticket items are replacing or repairing building systems, to which they propose to allocate over $829 million, and creating quality neighborhood schools for which over $509.1 million would be earmarked. The neighborhood schools element would include replacing aging portable classrooms with permanent buildings, developing STEAM labs and athletic facilities and facilities for special education students.
Other priorities include visual and performing arts facilities, affordable employee housing, improvements to energy efficiency and sustainability and facilities for the recently expanded, and still expanding, universal transitional kindergarten program.
Will my Property Taxes go up if Measure U Is Passed?
The measure won’t actually increase taxes. It will extend the current six cents per $100 tax on assessed property value.
Lee Dulgeroff, SDUSD’s chief facilities planning and construction officer, said at a June 28 board meeting that because of the conservative management of previous bond issuances the district has capacity within current revenue collections to take on more debt.
Samer Naji, facilities communication supervisor for SDUSD, wrote in an email that even if Measure U fails, voters will continue paying their current tax rate in the immediate and near-term future. “If the measure does not pass then tax rates may reduce gradually over time as bonds mature and each issuance is paid off,” Naji wrote.
The district estimates that if Measure U were to pass, all of its current bond issuances – which include 2008’s Measure S and 2018’s Measure YY – will mature and be paid off around 2050. The district is still set to receive around $2.6 billion from Props S and Z and Measure YY.
What’s the State of the District’s Facilities?
Historically, much of the cost of maintaining existing facilities, and creating new ones, has fallen on districts rather than the state, and local bonds have played a large role in helping those districts foot the bill. From 2007 to 2015 local bonds made up 65 percent of funding for facilities projects in California schools. The previous three San Diego Unified bonds had resulted in the completion of 195 projects districtwide, from 118 new classrooms buildings, 25 college career and technical education facilities, 90 playfields, a new Mission Valley elementary school and HVAC installations and technology purchases at every school in the district.
“So many of our schools and most of our school campuses we’ve seen incredible improvements” Barrera said at that July meeting.
“The experience of a student in our district is that on your campus you will have access to some state-of-the-art buildings that have been recently modernized, but again some that … are 50, 60 years old and that’s the nature of our schools. So we’re saying let’s continue the work lets continue to get to the point that all of our facilities meet the needs of our students,” Barerra said.
According to the district, despite the final issuance of Prop Z funds being expected to come in 2022, San Diego schools still need more work. The nature of buildings is that they deteriorate, so repairs and renovations are just a reality of maintaining them, and the longer they’re put off the more costly they become. And many San Diego schools are just old. According to the district, the average age of its buildings is 48 years old, and upgrading them to create more sustainable structures will allow the district to save long-term on yearly energy and maintenance costs, and a backlog of deferred maintenance.
Also, given rising inflation, building costs are likely to continue to rise and district leaders feel there’s no time like the present to invest in infrastructure.
“We need to invest now to save money for taxpayers,” Beiser said at that July meeting. But according to previous Voice of San Diego reporting, even when money is invested school facilities haven’t always gotten better. According to the district, its Facility Condition Index, a measurement that determines the condition of school facilities has risen from 22.7 percent in 2016, to 10 percent. That’s progress but given that an index below 5 percent is rated as good, from 6 to 10 percent fair, and above 10 percent as poor, the figure still only barely edges the district into the fair category.
Unlike some previous bond measures, San Diego County Taxpayer Association endorsed Measure U, though they expressed reservations about the employee affordable housing element. The new bond is also popular with both local charter schools and the candidates currently running for school board. Three of the four support the measure, while Becca Williams, the lone conservative in the race who’s running for the sub-district C board seat opposes it. Williams has criticized the similarities between the priorities of the current bond measure and previous ones and called into question the district’s ability to spend those funds in a fiscally responsible manner.
The district is quick to point out the number of projects it’s completed with those funds, however, and the fact that recent audits done on bond measures spending and priorities have approved their performance.
But another reason officials are comfortable proposing a new measure may simply be because they’re confident it will pass. It’s gone four for four on bond measures over the past two and a half decades, and the limited number of public comments on the measure at the July board meeting all encouraged trustees to approve it.
“The speakers tonight I think are reflective of a community that cares about our young people and is willing to invest in our young people and that’s been true in San Diego for over a decade,” trustee Richard Barrera said during the meeting. “The voters have consistently said yes to at times making sacrifices in order that our kids are able to learn in the facilities that they deserve to be learning in.”
“I think we’re seeing from our community tonight that our community is once again ready to say yes to investing in our students.”
Correction: This story has been updated with Lee Dulgeroff’s correct title. He is SDUSD’s chief facilities planning and construction officer.