Although supporters recently made their case for Measures I and J — the Santa Barbara school bonds on the ballot this November — they conspicuously left out some important details. The supporters diligently pointed out the need to make various repairs to the schools and to replace the older portable classrooms. The tax rates of $11.49 and $13.15 per $100,000 of assessed value for the two measures didn’t seem so bad, and as the article stressed, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire and renovate the National Armory to augment school programs.
So what can be wrong with voters passing the measures with all these good things in it? Simply put, like a mirage, the reality may not be what it seems. First, the tax rates are only estimates, reflecting a best-case scenario of assessed property values increasing at a steep rate and the generationally low interest rates of today remaining this low for the next decade. If either assumption should prove wrong, tax rates could be considerably higher.
Second, these won’t be the only two bond measures on your tax statement. Over the years, the schools in Santa Barbara have passed an alphabet soup of school bond measures. At last count, if these two measures pass, there will be eight different bond taxes on the tax statements of those residing in the Santa Barbara elementary and secondary districts, totaling hundreds if not thousands of dollars of additional property taxes you must pay every year. Considering that we live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, it’s hard to justify the additional expense when so many families can’t afford to live here anymore. Renters will be hit particularly hard, since landlords will undoubtedly increase rents to offset the additional taxes. In a market where vacancy rates are less than one percent, property owners will have no trouble placing the risk of higher school bond taxes on the tenants.
Also, it’s not as if residents haven’t been generous over the years passing school bond measures. Only six years ago, voters passed $110 million of bonds for the Santa Barbara schools. Just a few years before this, a $77 million city college bond issue was approved by the voters. To paraphrase a famous senator who was offended by the endless stories of government waste, fraud and abuse, “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” Although we are not talking billions of dollars with respect to these school bond issues, hundreds of millions of dollars, however, is no small sum either.
The real question voters should ask is what have we received for all the money spent on school infrastructure. Have test scores improved? Are more kids at grade level in math and English? Has the percentage of high school graduates needing remedial courses to attend Santa Barbara City College been reduced? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any system to capture the data, but I would venture to guess that none of these measures have improved.
Maybe the most egregious example of why voters should reject these bonds is because the Santa Barbara School Board of Trustees has not been forthcoming about what the money will be spent on. Although they keep telling us the bond proceeds will be used to ensure safe drinking water, remove lead paint, modernize libraries, and upgrade technology, in reality they voted to expend the bond funds on a brand new football stadium, like the ones you see in football-crazy Texas, as well as window renovation, new gyms, cafeterias and locker rooms, pool deck and astro turf replacement.
Why would they be disingenuous with voters on how the money is spent? Because the consultants and polling firms they hired for a considerable sum of money told them the best way to get voters to keep agreeing to these bonds was to scare them into thinking the schools would be unsafe or dangerous places for our kids. The pollsters also advised the district to market the bonds by equating them with better academic outcomes for our kids, even though not one dollar will go to hiring great teachers, principals, or improving curriculum and instruction.
And then there is the acquisition of the armory, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you will be hearing about again and again. However, it’s curious they can’t decide on how to spend the $20 million. Will it be for career vocational programs or after-school recreational programs? Has there ever been any appraisal, study or analysis to determine its use and how much it will cost?
Moreover, readers may be a tad surprised to learn we are spending millions of dollars to acquire the armory from the state after we donated it to them for $1 many years ago. Is that a good deal for local taxpayers? Finally, they will tout the replacement of deteriorating portables with permanent classrooms. They will not tell you, however, it will cost $1,000 per square foot or $1 million per classroom, an outrageous sum of money for a 1000-square-foot classroom. Even the Department of Education, to which they report, indicates this is twice as much as it should cost.
I know many will be tempted to vote for these bonds because, after all, it’s for our schools, but it might behoove you to see whether we are getting value for our hard-earned tax dollars and does it make sense to increase the cost of housing for those who can barely afford to live here. Maybe they need to go back to the drawing board and propose a more affordable bond measure for their highest priority needs, and leave all the wish list items for another day.