By practically any measure, California shortchanges its schools. Classes are too large, the school year is too short and demoralizing cutbacks are an annual exercise.
One exception is facilities, a spending category controlled by voters rather than state legislators.
In Sonoma County and around the state, voters routinely authorize bonds to build new schools and maintain existing facilities. In 2010, despite a recession, 58 of 77 school bond measures passed.
On June 5, bond acts will be on the ballot in five local school districts:
; Measure E: $35 million for secondary schools in Healdsburg.
; Measure F: $6 million for the Guerneville School District.
; Measure G: $26 million for Petaluma's Old Adobe Union School District.
; Measure H: $9 million for the Sebastopol Union School District.
; Measure I: $14 million for the Wright School District in Santa Rosa.
Each of the measures authorizes an almost identical list of projects: solar panels and energy-efficient windows, classroom technology, roof repairs, upgrading libraries, labs, playgrounds and multipurpose rooms. Each district will pick specific projects after the election.
Critics say the schools should have been setting aside money for roof repairs and other maintenance. But for districts struggling with day-to-day costs amid continuing state cutbacks, finding that money in the budget is virtually impossible. And allowing schools to deteriorate undercuts our next generation of leaders.
We recommend approval of all five bond measures. However, we have one concern to share.
In Healdsburg and Sebastopol, which have outstanding bond debt, the new bonds would be structured to backload payments. That will keep property tax rates at their present levels, but it's almost certain to increase total interest costs for the new bond issues. (In the other districts, debt payments will add an estimated $30 to property tax bills for every $100,000 in assessed value.)
Ordinarily, we'd prefer to see school districts retire one bond issue before starting another instead of paying more interest to avoid asking voters to increase property tax assessments. However, with interest rates and construction bids at historic lows, school districts that act now can stretch their dollars.
There's a sixth school finance measure on the June 5 ballot, Measure D, an $89 parcel tax in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District.
Unlike a bond, a parcel tax can pay for operating costs, including salaries for teachers and librarians. A parcel tax also requires a two-thirds majority, as opposed to 55 percent for school bonds.
Funding for Cotati-Rohnert Park schools has tumbled 27 percent over the past four years, and without more revenue or even deeper cuts, the district may not meet state solvency standards.
In a bid to attract some of the 700 local students who go to school in other districts, Cotati-Rohnert Park officials plan to reopen one of three schools closed in recent years, reconfigure other campuses and introduce some year-round programs. It's an ambitious approach, and it deserves a chance to succeed.
We recommend approval of Measure D as well as Measures E, F, G, H and I. They're investments in our future.