Kirk Effinger: San Marcos Unified School District: Pay me now, or pay me later

Thanks to a sequence of events unanticipated by the San Marcos Unified School District administration, its Board of Trustees, or, apparently advisers upon whom they relied, taxpayers in the district will soon be asked to accept a “lesser of two evils” decision forced by what ended up being opposing expectations from the district’s Proposition K bond authorization. 

That bond vote in 2010 asked for and received approval to indebt the district’s taxpayers to the tune of $287 million for reconstruction of an aging San Marcos High School as well as a laundry list of upgrades to other campuses throughout the district.

Taxpayers were initially given to believe they would only see their tax bills go up no more than $40 per $100,000 in assessed valuation, although the authorization allows up to $60. In return they would get a new high school facility to replace the old and significant improvements to elementary and middle schools in need of new permanent classrooms, infrastructure, and the like.

When the economy started tanking in 2008, the real estate market took perhaps the biggest hit. With values collapsing and new construction grinding to a halt, the property tax revenue stream also took a hit. What no one expected was how long things were going to last or how deep that recession was going to be.

Well, it was long enough and deep enough that there isn’t currently nearly enough revenue to repay the full allocation using current assessed valuations.

One way out of the dilemma before today, and one that had been partially in use was the issuing of Capital Appreciation Bonds. Unfortunately, these bonds carry with them negatives that made a lot of news recently and generated a new state law that makes using them again not viable.

Bear in mind that the reason this is even being discussed is because the State of California, which is supposed to be the entity providing funding for school construction and modernization, is not. In fact, as of today, the current balance of accounts of the state’s SFP (School Facility Program) — statewide — is a pitiful $402.3 million. The budget just to rebuild San Marcos High School was $160 million.

Matching funds from the state? San Marcos Unified is eligible to receive $52 million in state matching grants for Prop. K projects. Thirty-seven million dollars of that has been put on the State’s Unfunded Approvals list — bureaucratese for “fat chance.”

So, does SMUSD not honor its commitment to the community to complete all the projects originally promised by Prop. K? Or, does the district not honor its commitment to taxpayers to keep bond payments at or below $40 per $100,000?

Knowing that bond assessments for the last bond authorization approved in 1996 were actually some 30 percent lower on average than originally anticipated, and being somewhat confident that economic conditions in the district will rebound, the answer seems clear: Fulfill the commitment made to all the district’s students and parents. Finish the capital improvement projects.

Kirk W. Effinger was born in San Diego and raised in Southern California. He and his family have been residents of San Marcos for the past 30 years. His opinion columns have appeared regularly in the North County Times and, later, the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1995. He can be reached at kirkinsanmarcos@att.net or follow him on Twitter at @kirkeffinger

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