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TUSD Seeks Support for Taxpayer Borrowing

Courtesy of the Sierra Sun

I am not big on bonds to pay for much of anything in government. It is, basically, borrowing on the taxpayer credit card. Proponents of bond measures like to point out the urgent need for whatever it is the bonds will pay for. What they often fail to say is that it adds to the overall debt of the issuing agency and obligates the taxpayer to pay those bonds with interest that is, too often, more than the agency should be taking on.

In this particular case, I received an email from School Board member, Lynn Davis, regarding proposed bond measures that Tustin Unified School District is contemplating. The email is an invitation to a one hour informational briefing by TUSD Superintendent, Greg Franklin, outlining proposals being considered by the TUSD Board to place a technology bond on the ballot this November.

From the email:

We need to be prepared to provide the equipment, facilities and technology needed to teach these skills, as well as providing 21st century educational technology in all classrooms.  We can’t count on the State of California to fund these needed improvements in Tustin schools. Locally-controlled funding is the only certain source of resources to protect and provide the top-quality education our students deserve.
 
 You are invited to join us for a one-hour informational briefing by TUSD Superintendent Greg Franklin outlining proposals being considered by the TUSD Board of Education to place a technology bond on the ballot this November.  All money raised by this measure will stay in the district to support our students.  It cannot be taken away by the state, or used for other purposes.  An independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee will assure accountability for all spending, including annual independent audits.

Well, just the title, SAVE THE DATE – TECHNOLOGY FOR TUSD, is pretty catchy. And, I am sure it will generate a fair amount of interest, although I am not sure how that will equate to attendance. Most people are getting tired of bond measures and are finally getting the idea that bonds are not free money. In fact, they are quite costly in the long run. The one thing this proposal has over others is that it is for the schools. That tugs at the heart of every parent of a public school child and can equate to a huge amount of support. It’s also why we should be very wary.

The school district, like any other government entity, is scraping for cash to keep the system going. Bonds can’t be used to pay salaries but they do pay for construction which frees up other money for teachers and administrators. But, do they really need to saddle taxpayers with more debt through bonds that will probably not do what they are designed to do? Oh, and as a reminder, voters approved Measure G & L in 2008 by almost 60%, phenomenal for a bond measure. But, that was in 2008 before the public realized there was a real financial meltdown that would eventually bring the United States to its knees. Although we are recovering well, compared to the rest of the world, that isn’t because anyone is willing to go into debt…well, except maybe Jerry Brown and the State of California – but, that’s another post.

In any case, Measure L was a general obligation bond that was supposed to be used, in part, to increase the technology of the TUSD campuses. Reading the 2010 auditor’s report, it looks as if the school district has been a good steward of the money it has received. However, the interest rates for the various instruments issued range from  3% to a whopping 6.589%. This was for 95 million dollars in bonds. I will let you do the math on the amortized amount but, suffice it to say, you are saddling your children with enormous debt.

Also, in looking over the documents from Measure L Citizens Oversight Committee, much has been done in the building and refurbishment area, little has been done in the technology area. That could be because the bulk of the bond money is obligated to construction with just a slice taken for technology.

Questions that I hope will be asked, is how much of this money will go to increasing technology rather than just more construction? How much will go into improving classroom technology? How much will be directly spent on our children as opposed to new building construction?  As a reminder, Measure L was supposed to pay for technology as well as construction (yeah,yeah, I know – the science and technology building at Foothill). If sufficient controls are not put into place (besides a Citizens Oversight Committee that includes the City Treasurer, Geroge Jeffries who in all likelihood is reporting to Jerry Amante on the doings of TUSD), how will the taxpayers know they got what they will be paying for (for a long time)?

Apparently, the school district is just in the “contemplation” stage of the bond game. In a time when austerity should be the word, it is a bit disconcerting that anyone, let alone a school district, would think of floating more debt in hopes that the magic financial fairy will make it all go away. These are your taxpayer dollars they hope to put to work. It will be up to us to decide if the benefit outweighs the cost.