Print this Article

District Seeking Conditions Similar to 2011 Decision

West Contra Costa Trustees Hoping that SBE Will See Value in Bond Waiver Request

Jeff Hudson - April 25, 2013

(Second of Two Parts)

Over the past decade, the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), which includes the Bay Area communities of Richmond, San Pablo, Hercules, Pinole, El Cerrito, El Sobrante and Kensington, has established a remarkable track record for securing voter approval of local school facilities bonds and parcel tax measures. (See part one of this article from the March 28 edition of EdBrief).

West Contra Costa voters have approved multiple ballot measures put forward by the school district, allowing the district to modernize existing facilities and/or replace aging buildings, as well as strengthen and improve academic programs. West Contra Costa’s record is all the more noteworthy because the district serves a number of communities that were hit harder than most by the recession that began in 2008, pushing down local property values. But even during the recession, West Contra Costa voters, seeing the long-term value to the community that comes from improving the local schools, approved several more school district-sponsored ballot measures, authorizing upgrades and/or replacement of school buildings that were in many cases more than 50 years old.

The decline of local property values due to the recession also impacted the District’s ability to implement the school improvement bonds that local voters had approved. California education code prohibits school districts from issuing bonds in excess of 2.5 percent of a district’s taxable property. But school districts have had the option to ask the State Board of Education (SBE) to waive that provision under certain circumstances. And in March 2011, the SBE granted WCCUSD such a waiver, allowing the district to issue bonds up to 5.0 percent of the assessed valuation of taxable property under a ballot measure authorizing $380 million in bonds approved by voters in June of 2010. The West Contra Costa district also requested – and received from the SBE – a ten-year time frame for this waiver, allowing the district to implement the expanded bonding capacity through Dec. 31, 2010.

The March 2011 waiver that the SBE granted to West Contra Costa was not controversial. “They approved it unanimously, on the consent calendar,” recalled Charles Ramsey, a longtime trustee on the West Contra Costa school board.

But last year’s controversy involving the Poway Unified School District in Southern California – which issued Capital Appreciation Bonds (CABs) that drew considerable criticism, has created a political climate in Sacramento that West Contra Costa trustees fear might impact their chances when they go before the State Board of Education again in May with another waiver request, this time for the $360 million bond authorization that local voters just approved in November, 2012.

The controversy over Poway prompted State Treasurer Bill Lockyer to put curbs on school districts’ ability to issue Capital Appreciation Bonds, and legislation (AB 182, sponsored by Assemblymember Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo) that would limit CABs cleared the California Assembly on a 73-0 vote.

Ramsay stressed that West Contra Costa is not intending to issue CABs. “If they say ‘No CABs,’ that’s not a problem with us,” Ramsey said. “We won’t do CABs.”

But the West Contra Costa trustees are worried because of the action that the SBE took last month (March 2013) regarding a waiver of bonded indebtedness limits requested by the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District. The Alum Rock district was not attempting to issue the controversial CABs, and after some discussion, the SBE granted Alum Rock’s waiver request. But in doing so, the SBE imposed conditions that greatly concern the West Contra Costa trustees – including a two-year limit on the waiver.

That kind of short-term limit could severely hamper the West Contra Costa district’s ability to implement the upgrades that local voters have already approved and for which they are willing to pay.

“We need a five percent limit, for ten years,” said Ramsey, stressing that West Contra Costa is not asking for anything different than what the SBE has granted to the school district in the past. “The waiver the SBE granted us two years ago (in March 2011) was of tremendous value. They would be proud to know it made a difference for the students.”

West Contra Costa school board president Madeline Kronenberg agreed that the district needs a waiver raising the limit to five percent, over a ten year period. “Our issue is that we can’t issue everything in two years. We need our waiver to go longer,” Kronenberg said.

She added, “What’s happened is that because of the [alleged] abuse in Poway and other districts with CABs, Treasurer Lockyer has made this an important part of his goals for the state, to remove those financial vehicles. And then Assemblymember Buchanan started her bill AB 182, which would put further restrictions on school districts – restrictions that could make things impossible for a district (like ours) that has seen an assessed valuation decrease (due to the recession).”

More affluent Bay Area communities like Palo Alto have already seen property values recover. But Kronenberg said the local economy in West Contra Costa is still on the mend, and the district needs a waiver like the one that was granted in March 2011 to continue to provide bond funding that will allow the district to keep up its efforts to improve school facilites moving forward and bring the remaining schools up to standard.

“As we have gone over our bond program over the last 15 years, we now have some schools that have up-to-date technology and newer furniture, better lighting, and all sorts of support for our teachers. But in some cases, those schools are within blocks of older schools that have nothing like that, which were built over 50 years ago. Our goal as a district, which has been mentioned in many campaigns for local ballot measures, is to rebuild the district, and provide all of our children with equally wonderful schools. If we are unable to do this, if (severe waiver conditions) are placed on us, so that we are unable to issue bonds, the inequity (in facilities) that we are addressing will simply continue for another 20 years.” That situation can end up creating a bigger disparity among schools.

Kronenberg added that she hopes the SBE will recognize that “we (in West Contra Costa) have done everything by the book. We have been as transparent as possible with the community, with televised meetings about our bond program. We have received tremendous support from other elected officials in the community, supporting the fact that we’ve done it right, and we should be able to get a waiver.”

“To have conditions come in on us, out of the blue, because of bad behavior hundreds of miles away in Southern California would be the wrong approach,” Kronenberg said. “We were not the problem. We do not intend to be the problem. But it will be a problem for the kids if they don’t get the schools that our voters have voted to give them.”

Ramsey added “We have total community buy-in and support, from teachers, parents, PTA groups, law enforcement groups, business groups, wastewater boards, AC Transit, and more.”

“We think the SBE is smart,” Ramsey said. “They’re informed, and we hope they’ll see that our needs as a district should be met. And the SBE is going to be hearing a lot of these waiver requests, they need to look at each district individually.”

“And really, it is a social justice issue,” Ramsey said. “We’ve fixed 30 of our 57 schools. Are we going to have to stop now because of the problems in Poway?”

The State Board of Education will be deciding on the WCCUSD waiver request during its meeting on May 8-9. School districts and boards statewide are watching anxiously since a denial can effectively deem the voter’s will null and void.

Editor's Note:  Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.