This June, the West Contra Costa Unified School District will be going back to the funding well and hoping it hasn’t dried up.
With West County taxpayers already having shouldered close to $785 million in school-related bond debt over the past 12 years, the school district is asking for another $380 million on the June 8 ballot through Measure D, a bond measure that would pay for renovations and upgrades at 11 of the district’s schools. Measure D would charge homeowners roughly $48 per $100,000 of a home’s assessed worth, according to ballot language.
The district began last school year with a $16 million budget gap, and several campuses – many 30 or 40 years old – still in need of seismic upgrades.
While the district’s voters have been willing to reach into their pockets to support school projects in the past, it remains to be seen whether the toll of a stagnant housing market, an abnormally high unemployment rate, and the national recession will do anything to change what has been a tax-friendly history in West County.
“People’s homes are going down in value, and there just doesn’t seem to be a willingness [from the WCCUSD] to accept that,” said Kris Hunt, executive director of the nonprofit Contra Costa County Taxpayers Association, which opposes Measure D. “It just isn’t good government on the part of the district.”
Despite the already-existing bond debt, the school board is hoping district constituents will appreciate the need for seismic retrofitting and other repairs at some of its worst-off campuses, including Richmond’s Valley View Elementary School and Richmond High. In all, the measure promises to include renovations at 11 of the district’s 57 campuses, plus system-wide security upgrades that will include installing cameras and better lighting around the schools.
“People can relate to the importance of rebuilding schools,” WCCUSD board member Tony Thurmond, a former Richmond City Councilman, said. “The measure’s got a very concrete purpose. When you ask for a parcel tax that’ll go into the general fund, that seems to be of less interest to voters, especially if they don’t have strong feelings about the credibility of the district. And let’s face it, this district’s had its problems over the years.”
Indeed, the school board has endured criticism recently for delays in erecting surveillance and lighting equipment, particularly at Richmond High, where a student was raped during a homecoming dance last fall. At the time, members of the board said that the state’s Department of Architecture dragged its feet in green-lighting those projects. The department has since approved the plans, and the board expects the surveillance equipment to be installed over the summer.
Financial woes, however, are nothing new to the district. In 1991, the district filed for bankruptcy following the messy implementation of its open-choice plan, which allowed students to go to the campus of their choosing. The bankruptcy disqualified the district from applying from any state funding for seven years, according to board member Charles Ramsey. Four bond measures and a parcel tax later, the district still appears to be in need of capital.
But taxpayers seem at least willing to consider more funding: Thurmond said the school board conducted a poll of the district’s voters and found that while sentiment had turned against passing another parcel tax, enough people found a bond measure tolerable.
Bond measures require a 55 percent majority to pass in California. Parcel taxes require a two-thirds majority.
“There’s been neglect [of these schools] for decades,” Thurmond said. “But there just isn’t any money to fix them. You can’t do that out of the general fund. But floating these bonds does give us an opportunity to rebuild. … We realize that we’re counting on the generosity of local voters, and they’ve been very generous in the past.”
Counting Measures E (1998), M (2000), D (2002) and J (2005), the district has floated more construction-bond measures than any state school district other than San Diego and Los Angeles over the last decade. According to a recent column in The Contra Costa Times, the owner of a $500,000 home in West County paid $615 in bond payments in 2009: “By 2010-2011, that’s expected to increase to $955. If voters approve Measure D, the annual payments would reach $1,195 in 2010-11, or nearly double what they were two years earlier,” columnist Daniel Borenstein concluded.
In addition, district taxpayers in 2004 approved the Measure B parcel tax to limit class sizes, and renewed the tax in 2008, then under the ballot name of Measure D.
Despite the long history of bond measures, supporters think Measure D is necessary.
“A lot of people see the cities in this district as generally dangerous,” said Raquel Romero, an El Cerrito High alum who is now managing the Yes on D campaign. “Some of these schools are in violent areas, and the kids can feel it, too. They need to be able to feel safe at their schools. People in the cities with brand-new schools can feel safer.”
Previous bond measures have resulted in major renovations at several of Richmond’s public schools, including Nystrom Elementary School, athletic field improvements at Richmond and Kennedy high schools, and the construction of Lovonya DeJean Elementary School on MacDonald Avenue.
But according to Hunt, of the Taxpayers’ Association, the district’s bond measures have succeeded in the past in large part because many people don’t fully understand how bonds work and also because school issues remain one of the most important to district parents. “The district always issues a list of schools the measures will affect, and it includes almost every school in the district,” Hunt said. “It’s a Christmas tree measure: Here’s something for you, and something for you, and something for you. And people don’t often understand … they think bonds are free. They have their property tax bills sent directly to their mortgage companies, so they never even see the fees.”
Ramsey, however, pointed out that the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, as well as all five City Councils in the district’s sphere, have all come out in support of the measure. “We’re not putting this on the backs of future generations,” Ramsey said. “We’re not putting this off for 40 years from now. Nobody’s saying it’s not expensive, but remember, we went 30 years without any facility upgrades. We can’t afford to wait any more."