Guest column: Vote ‘no’ on Measures U and E
October 13, 2014
The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District's Measures U bond proposal is too large, too expensive, lacks accountability and is fiscally irresponsible.
Including interest, Measure U will cost Truckee taxpayers over $250 million (yes, a quarter-billion dollars). The district estimates that Measure U will cost taxpayers an additional $48 per $100 thousand in property value.
For a home valued at $500,000, for example, owners will pay an additional $240 per year. Actual costs could be significantly higher, depending on whether the district's optimistic economic assumptions hold true.
This increase will be in addition to increasing baseline property taxes, three prior school bonds that we're still paying-off, the 38 percent increase in the school parcel tax that voters recently approved, college and growing hospital bond surcharges, and the new sales tax for trails.
The bond measure lacks meaningful accountability. The district has developed an elaborate Facilities Master Plan, but nothing in the ballot measure actually requires the district to follow the plan.
The fine print allows the district to spend the funds on "any and all district schools and facilities," provides that even listed projects "may be delayed or may not be completed" and that bond funds "may be contributed to projects that have district-wide benefit, regardless of the location."
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Parents, students, staff and community members have zero assurance that Master Plan projects in their schools will be funded. In effect, Measure U is a $250 million blank check and the district is saying to the voters "trust us."
Many of the projects in the Master Plan are of questionable necessity. Do schools really need video production studios, sound stages, student unions, greenhouses, innovation labs and the like?
Other projects seem redundant: does a school need both a traditional and "black box" theater? A weight room for physical education and a separate one for athletics?
While such luxuries may be desirable, they hardly seem necessary — especially in the context of a slow economic recovery.
The district says it will be held accountable because state law mandates audits and a citizen oversight committee.
Granted, the law does indeed require audits and an oversight committee. Still, the loose ballot language means auditors and citizens will have little or no standing to question the district's use of bond funds.
The district's track record shows a troubling lack of commitment to facilities maintenance, including: poorly-maintained roofs, peeling paint that leads to wood rot, pine needles clogging drains causing water damage, etc.
While many school finance experts recommend spending at least three percent of a district's budget for maintenance, the District spends far less and has cut maintenance funding. If the voters approve Measure U, the track record demonstrates that taxpayers have no assurance the District will maintain them.
Measure U also authorizes spending long-term facilities bond funds (up to 40 years long) on short-lived items, including computers, video projectors, flat-screen televisions, and the like.
Using long-term facility bonds to pay for short-lived equipment is unsound financial management — akin to taking out a second mortgage to pay for a new TV or iPhone.
Because Tahoe-Truckee has extremely generous voters and high property values, our school district is one of California's richest. District revenues exceed $12,000 per student per year — over 50 percent higher than the average district.
The district will incur a huge, $3 million operating deficit this year — the second consecutive year of deficit spending. Despite high and increasing revenues, the District projects continued deficit spending for the next two years with no increase in spending to address deferred maintenance.
While the district neither balances its budget nor adequately funds maintenance, it has added new administrative staff and granted multiple raises to administrators' salaries.
While this column focuses on Measure U, a similar Measure E for Lakeside schools suffers the same problems.
Before asking voters to commit to decades of payments totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, the district needs to (1) balance its budget, (2) commit to spending at least three percent of its budget on maintenance, and (3) substantially pare-down its request to responsible and necessary projects.
Eric Premack is a Truckee resident.