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PD Editorial: Say yes to this version of Prop 13

California has more than 9 million students, about two-thirds of them in K-12 schools and the rest attending community colleges or universities.

These students need classrooms, libraries and labs equal to the demands of a 21st century education. To prosper, this state needs them to succeed. But too many of the state's educational facilities are outdated or in need of maintenance.

Proposition 13 on the March 3 ballot covers major upgrades for schools, colleges and universities.

Don't be fooled by the title. This Prop. 13 isn't about property taxes. It's a $15 billion state bond act for K-12 schools ($9 billion) and higher education ($6 billion).

The money can be spent only for capital improvements - new buildings or renovation of existing school facilities.

And the measure, which was placed on the ballot by state lawmakers, includes some overdue changes to the way California allocates public money for school facilities.

For starters, the bulk of the K-12 funding ($5.2 billion) would be earmarked for remodels, unlike past bond acts that divided money evenly between new schools and renovations. With declining enrollment across the state, upgrading existing facilities is a more cost-effective approach.

In addition, Prop. 13 would end the practice of distributing bond money to K-12 districts on a first-come, first-served basis. That system gives an unfair advantage to large, urban school systems with the resources to develop projects in advance and go to the front of the line as soon as funding becomes available.

Under Prop. 13, top priority would be given to projects involving health and safety, such as removal of lead and mold. Matching fund requirements also freeze out some districts, and this measure would give second priority to districts that have less ability to raise their own funds.

To qualify for state bond money, school districts would be required to submit a five-year master plan for facilities.

Finally, preschool projects would be eligible for funding, aiding districts that step up to offer early childhood education. And there is $500 each for career technical education and charter schools.

For community colleges, UC and CSU, the bond money - $2 billion for each system - could fund badly needed student housing as well as upgrades to other facilities. At Sonoma State University for example, where more than 60% of the buildings are at least 40 years old, officials have identified $108 million in infrastructure needs. Santa Rosa Junior College has 10 projects in the pipeline that could be partially funded by Prop. 13.

Opponents of the measure cite debt service, noting that repaying principal and interest on the bonds will cost an estimated $27 billion over 35 years. They suggest paying for school improvements from the state's surplus. Spending it now would drain the rainy day reserve that was created to avoid deep spending cuts when the next recession hits.

There are, however, two provisions of Prop. 13 that raise concerns - and one of them does involve property taxes.

Prop. 13 would raise debt limits for California school districts. A higher cap would allow them to seek voter approval for more bond debt, which is paid off with property tax surcharges. Some districts already are paying off several bonds, and most districts fail the transparency test in explaining to voters exactly what they plan to do with bond money.

Prop. 13 also gives priority to districts that use project labor agreements, which put non-union contractors at a disadvantage in bidding. We think that's bad policy. We wouldn't blame voters for saying no for that reason alone. But it is offset to some extent by other reforms, and The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Proposition 13.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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