Officials of the Orange Unified School District have spent more than $50,000 to support a $288 million bond measure on the November ballot. Expenses include $23,200 for opinion polling and $6,000 per month for campaign consultants, according to documents reviewed by the California Policy Center: School board members authorized the district to spend up to $128,000 on the effort. If voters approve the bond, there will be additional costs – $225,000 for financial advisors and $265,000 for legal advice.
The district’s use of public funds rests on a crucial legal distinction, said Orange Unified Superintendent Michael Christensen. It’s legal to use taxpayer dollars to educate the public, but not to campaign.
Critics say that’s a distinction without a difference during the campaign season.
“It should be illegal for school district resources to be allocated for political campaigns, political polling, campaign strategists and consultants. It’s a shameful abuse of our tax dollars,” said former Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly, who opposes the bond. “It’s not surprising that OUSD has squandered $50,000 trying to trick well-meaning voters into increasing their own property taxes for the next 30 years.”
Bonds are loans in which borrowers – in this case, the school district – pay lenders interest on the principal for a period of years. The district makes those interest payments with income from new taxes. Orange school trustees voted July 21 to set that tax at $29 for every $100,000 of assessed property value. The owner of a house or building valued at $1 million would pay $290 per year, for example.
But residents won’t know the full cost of the bond until after the measure is passed and bonds are ready to be issued. The interest rates depend on the market, though Christensen said his staff estimates the rate will be around 4.85 percent. If he’s right, the total cost of a $288 million bond will be roughly $547 million, with about $259 million going toward interest alone.
Though district officials say all Orange Unified schools need a makeover, the measure would refurbish only the district’s four high schools – El Modena, Canyon, Villa Park and Orange. That’s an average of $137 million for each of the four schools.
The bond proposal does nothing to refurbish Orange Unified’s six middle schools or 29 elementary schools.
There was a time when OUSD saved cash for new buildings and maintenance of old ones. That changed in 2002, with a union-backed campaign to recall conservative district trustees, including a high-profile teachers strike in April 2002 and the claim that the district’s conservatives had been so stingy with teacher pay that the district was bleeding qualified teachers.
“Since 1998, Orange’s most experienced educators have departed in droves – more than 1,000 teachers and administrators, including Teachers of the Year, mentor teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses, reading specialists and special education teachers,” a union advocate wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Behind that dramatic claim was a district that actually saved cash against the certain need of school repairs. But union power triumphed over thrift. In June, the conservatives were shown the exits and union-backed candidates promptly took their places. Once in control of the gavel, district trustees commissioned a report that concluded, “Orange Unified had consistently overestimated its expenses and underestimated district revenues and kept unnecessarily high levels of emergency reserves,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Those “unnecessarily high” reserves were liquidated to pay for teacher salary increases in 2002. Just two years later, Orange Unified asked voters to approve a bond, first in March, and then again in November. Both times it was denied. Then, in 2014, it lost a bond vote that would have allowed the district to borrow $296 million.
With three bond failures since 2002 – and a controversial fourth bond measure coming in three months – Orange voters seem to be sending a clear message to the district. School officials know how to spend, but voters remember a time, before 2002, when school officials knew how to save.
Ethan Musser is a rising senior at Mississippi State, and a Journalism Fellow at the California Policy Center in Tustin. This article first appeared in the Orange County Register.