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In November, San Diegans will vote on the latest bond measure brought by San Diego Unified – its fourth in 14 years. Some of the priorities included are eerily similar to those in past measures, as are the claim it won’t increase the taxes of San Diego homeowners. Here’s the long view on why the district argued it needed each bond measure, and how the money was spent.
Proposition S and the Shadow of the Great Recession
In 2008, San Diego Unified put Proposition S, the “San Diego School Repair and Safety Measure,” on the ballot. It was pitched by supporters as a badly needed cash infusion to “fight urban decay in San Diego City schools.” Like November’s Measure U, the district also claimed that since it was essentially replacing 1998’s Prop MM, the existing tax rate wouldn’t increase.
Opponents argued it was a second mortgage on San Diegans’ homes that came at a time when Prop MM was still being paid down. “Will they try for a third, a fourth, or fifth, just because they can? You bet they will,” wrote Pat Flannery, a political gadfly, in a 2008 letter.
Voters approved the bond, allowing the district to levy up to $66.70 per $100,000 of assessed property value to pay for projects like removing asbestos and mold, fixing unsafe school drop-off and pick-up zones, installing security systems, renovating classrooms and replacing portable classrooms. Another significant program launched with Prop S that continues to this day was the i21 classroom initiative, which promised to refresh classroom technology every five years.
But when the Great Recession hit, property tax revenue tumbled. Faced with a revenue shortfall, the district delayed some projects, which drove up the interest it owed. Struggling with a lack of a consistent source of funds to keep up with repairs, the district in 2010 opted to delay paying back some of its bonds.
By 2011, the housing market crash had so diminished revenue that district administrators were pushing SDUSD to halt construction, with some officials projecting that the money coming in would only be enough to continue to pay off MM. A continued lack of consistent revenue from the state, a ballooning number of IOU’s, a credit rating downgrade and a looming budget deficit prompted largely by staffing costs left the district considering closing over a dozen schools. In November it decided against the closures, but the board floated a new bond.
Prop Z — Stadiums And “Whole Site Modernizations”
Amid its financial turmoil, the district argued a new bond, though it couldn’t go to staff pay, would free up funds entangled in construction and renovation that could then go to staff – which made up over 90 percent of its costs.
The district also argued that it would be able to save on costs like energy and water by upgrading school infrastructure.
At the time, homeowners paid $67 per every $100,000 in assessed value, but all that revenue was paying off projects already completed. Swamped with debt, the district had no way to tap into the $1.7 billion it was still allowed to borrow via Prop S.
Or, the district said, voters could approve another bond measure, along with a property tax increase – now dubbed Prop Z, which ultimately passed. After years of fiscal chaos, which included a budget deficit as high as $120 million, the layoff of 20 percent of its teachers and the district nearing the brink of insolvency, there was a bit of optimism. Statewide, Proposition 30 also raised funds for education.
But from 2009 to 2015, 43 percent of what the district had spent to modernize schools went to new stadiums and athletic facilities, while some repairs had to wait until the district embarked on a “whole site modernization,” a process that brings schools up to code and repairs all major issues at once. By 2015, the district completed only six of the roughly 140 whole site modernization projects voters had approved.
Gone were the warnings of the danger of asbestos-ridden classrooms in Prop Z’s messaging. In fact, the district asserted, asbestos was never really a risk anyway. The district argued stadiums needed to be ADA compliant, that they provide a sense of pride that increases test scores, that if some schools had nice stadiums, all schools should and the bleakly political logic that sometimes curb appeal simply wins out.
“The things that people want to prioritize aren’t always the things we need to prioritize,” former SDUSD board member Scott Barnett said at the time. “It’s about what the parents want and what the politicians want. Look, you can’t do a ribbon-cutting on new plumbing, right? But you can do it on a new stadium.”
By 2016, SDUSD had spent $1 billion in funds from Props S and Z, but only $200 million had gone toward projects considered major repairs or renovations to existing facilities, and during that time the condition of SDUSD schools actually got worse. But even as facility conditions improved somewhat, they didn’t amount to the improvements originally projected, and the district telegraphed the need for much more funding.
In 2017, SDUSD found elevated lead levels at fixtures in three schools. Replacing plumbing at one of those schools, Emerson-Bandini Elementary, had been highlighted as a reason to pass both Props S and Z. Yet none of the $1.7 million spent at the school – like hundreds of thousands that went to a turf field and solar panels – went to plumbing. The district insisted those projects didn’t delay plumbing fixes, which they’d planned to take care of during a whole site modernization project that ultimately kicked off in 2019.
So began the era of Measure YY.
Measure YY – Déjà Vu All Over Again
Like Prop Z, Measure YY levied a new tax of $60 for every $100,000 assessed property value. The similarities didn’t stop there. Measure YY’s spending priorities bore a striking resemblance to those from the past two bond measures and included classroom renovations and security improvements – priorities the board has listed for yet another bond measure four years later. The district argued that even given new statewide investments in schools, it needed the bond to offset budget cuts made during the Great Recession, despite its budget rebounding years earlier.
But the key selling point to YY was providing kids drinking water safe from lead. Despite promises to repair and upgrade plumbing with past bond money, and the district spending hundreds of thousands to test taps and replace ones found to have higher-than-allowed lead levels, the district said it needed additional funds to finish the job.
District officials also argued that though there was still billions left from the previous two bond measures, estimates of the costs of repairs exceeded that amount, so a new bond measure would be needed at some point. Voters ultimately approved Measure YY, making the district three for three in bond measures over a decade.
The district touts major bond-funded construction and renovation projects completed in recent years as evidence of the benefits of previous bonds and its ability to spend funds in a fiscally responsible manner. Maureen Magee, SDUSD’s communications director wrote in an email that a total of 195 projects have been completed since the passage of Prop S, including over 100 new classrooms and career and technical education facilities, nearly 100 playfields and an entirely new elementary school in Mission Valley.
They also include the $180 million rebuild and restructuring of struggling Memorial Prep that gave Logan Heights its first ever high school. There are also over 100 projects at some point in the design and bid or construction phase, and the condition of district buildings has significantly increased in the past five years, with district officials projecting continued increases over the coming years. SDUSD’s also added at least some filtered drinking water outlets at every school districtwide.
Magee has also argued that previous bond measures have allowed the district to save money, citing reduced energy and maintenance costs from updating outdated facilities. SDUSD projects its solar installations will produce 50 percent of its energy needs by the end of the year, saving around $6 million annually.
Now, with November’s Measure U, the district is hoping despite its share of bond spending controversies, the projects it has completed are enough to convince voters to extend the winning streak.