Peralta Officials Have Hope for New Bond

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 07, 2006

The landscape for California school bonds has changed radically since the Peralta Community College District last asked local voters for money. 

Peralta officials hope the new state school bond structure, set up by the passage of Proposition 39 in 2000, will be helpful both in the passage of the $390 million Measure A bond on the June ballot and in the impact on the district if the measure is approved. 

In 2000, close to 80 percent of Peralta district voters approved Measure E, the $153 million construction bond measure. A major portion of that money was used for the construction of Berkeley City College (formerly Vista College), scheduled to open its new downtown Berkeley campus this year. 

But even with its large approval percentage—far in excess of the two-thirds vote needed—and its success in bringing the new Berkeley City College campus into being, problems plagued Measure E both before and after its passage. 

Measure E came under the authority of the old Proposition 13, which limited expenditures to school construction but gave districts leeway as to what construction projects they were going to work on once the money was approved. 

Prior to the vote on Measure E in November of 2000, Berkeley politicians sought written assurances from Peralta officials that at least $25 million of the bond money would be spent on a new Vista College campus, with the Daily Planet reporting Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring threatening to pull their political support for the measure if it did not. 

“I hate to issue ultimatums, but Vista College has been burned in the past by [the Peralta Trustee] board, and before we support such a measure, we want to make sure we have a guarantee, in writing,” the Planet reported Worthington as saying a month before Measure E went before voters.  

“It’s already designated in the budget if the measure passes,” then-Peralta Chancellor Ron Temple told the Planet. “The commitment is there. We’ve bought land, we’ve hired an architect, we have a plan.” 

Temple also said that Peralta trustees had already passed a resolution committing a portion of the potential Measure E funds to the Vista construction, an action which didn’t satisfy the two Berkeley City Councilmembers.  

Peralta eventually honored their commitment to Vista, but squabbles over other Measure E expenditures have surfaced over the past year, with Peralta trustees complaining that there is no comprehensive list of proposed Measure E construction projects. During the recent debate over approval of the Laney athletic field renovations, for example, some trustees said that they had no idea of what needed construction projects might be left out when new construction projects were requested. 

In part, that comes from the fact the leeway the old bond measure laws gave districts in spending the construction bond money, allowing them to spend it on any school construction project so long as it met state law and the parameters of the bond itself. 

But during the same election in which Peralta District voters approved Measure E, California voters approved Proposition 39, amending the California Constitution to allow changes in school bond measures. 

One such change, outlined in the League of Women Voters election guide of that year, involved a requirement for a list of proposed projects to accompany the bond measure on the ballot. It read, “Taxpayers want to know how their money will be spent before they vote on local school bonds. Proposition 39 requires local districts to list in advance the projects that will be paid for . . .” 

The new Peralta bond measure on the June ballot, written under the authority of Proposition 39, will now contain a detailed list of all of the specific projects authorized under Measure A. 

Just as significantly, while Prop 39-authorized bond money cannot be spent on administration or salaries, it adds equipment purchase and some forms of training to the types of allowable expenses. 

“It’s incorrect to call Measure A merely a ‘construction bond measure,’” Peralta Chief Financial Officer Tom Smith told a League of Women Voters Measure A forum in Albany this week. 

Peralta officials, however, have not yet come up with a short phrase which describes the measure. 

At the same forum, Peralta Trustee Nicky Gonzalez Yuen explained one example of the Measure E construction restrictions in the Vista College project. 

“We could spend Measure E money on facilities within a classroom, but only if those facilities were considered permanent,” Yuen said. “Chairs and a lectern could be purchased, but only if they were bolted down as part of the classroom structure.” 

Yuen said this created an artificial barrier that prevented flexibility in construction. 

The new bond measure, if passed, will also allow for such non-construction items as new computer purchase and technology upgrades throughout the four-college district, items which are particularly needed at Laney College in Oakland, the district’s oldest facility. 

Proposition 39 had another significant impact on school bond measures in California: while under Prop 13, such measures had to received two-thirds voter approval, Prop 39-mandated bonds now only need 55 percent voter approval. 

Still, Peralta officials are scrambling to build support for the measure, with a clear campaign strategy and team not yet in place. The effort is complicated by the short time between now and the June election. 

According to trustee Yuen, the district had originally envisioned the bond measure going on the November ballot, but moved it up to keep it from being voted on in the same election as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed California infrastructure bond. 

Peralta officials were concerned that the governor’s massive infrastructure bond would overshadow the Peralta measure, dragging the Peralta measure down to defeat either because the governor’s measure was so unpopular or because voters were only inclined to give money to one major project on the ballot.