Election Section

It's Really a Billion Dollars: $100,000 per Student for Capital Improvements (Commentary)

By Albert Sukoff
Wednesday October 20, 2010 - 09:44:00 AM

If you have been driving around Berkeley this election season, you could not help but notice the preponderance of signs on both private and public property which support rather than oppose Measures H and I. That is because the relatively few people who have managed a modicum of time and energy to fight these measures do not have even a small part of the resources available to those in support. Those promoting H and I have been given over $100,000 from various unions, architectural design and engineering firms and building contractors, all of which stand to benefit from the passage of these measures. The proponents have all the signs they need and paid help to put them up (and to sabotage the few signs posted in opposition). What they do not have is a much of a case for passage of these measures. 

The Board of the Berkeley Unified School District says it needs your money and lots of it. Tellingly, all the literature in favor of Measures H and I do not mention the magnitude of the amounts involved It’s for the kids; don’t worry about the money. These two ballot two measures appear to raise only $260,000,000 for maintenance and capital improvements for the Berkeley schools. Measure H renews a current property tax surcharge in order to collect another $50,000,000 for school maintenance. Measure I authorizes the District to issue $210,000,000 in school construction bonds. Oh, were that the end of the story. 

Priscilla Myrick is running for School Board. One gleans from her literature that she actually has a background in finance, apparently something the current Board sorely lacks. Ms. Myrick points out that Measure I specifies the amount of the bond issue at the aforementioned $210,000,000. As she points out, however, the $210,000,000 is the principal of the bonds to be issued. The interest is another $411,000,000 for a total of $$611,000,000 for Measure I alone. 

This is still not the end of the story. Measure AA in 2000 authorized another $116,500,000 in bonds, $300,000,000 with interest. We are now over $900,000,000 in principal and interest for Measures I on this year’s ballot and Measure AA from 2000. Add measure H and its predecessor measure and we are over ONE BILLION DOLLARS for school maintenance and construction. 

The current enrollment in the Berkeley schools is 9,000; projections have enrollment growing to only 9,400 over the next decade. So over a BILLION DOLLARS divided by less than 10,000 students comes to over $100,000 per student for maintenance and construction. 

It is generally contended around Berkeley that 30-50% of the student in the local schools actually live outside the district. If this is even close to true, Measures H and I are that much worse. School districts get money from Sacramento for each day of student attendance so it is arguable that students not resident in Berkeley are financially taken care of by the State. The same cannot be said for capital facilities. Local Berkeley tax payers pick up the entire tab and therefore one could conclude that these measures will actually cost $200,000 per Berkeley student. 

This is the story even if the money were necessary and even if it were to be well spent; or even if it is to be spent as specified. However, to quote from the Myrick campaign literature: Measure I is a vague and poorly written construction bond measure and allows the school board total discretion in terms of how the funds are actually spent. The text of the ballot measure states, “Inclusion of a project on the Bond Project List is not a guarantee that the project will be funded or completed. Listed project will be completed as needed at a particular school site according to Board-established priorities, and the order in which such projects appear on the Board Project list is not indication of priority for funding completion”. 

In other words: here’s a list but it doesn’t mean a thing. The School Board spent $40,000,000 of the Measure AA funds on projects never mentioned to the public when it was passed. Given the cop-out clause in Measure I and the Board’s history, it is pretty clear the what the proposed measures do is to provide the Berkeley Unified School District with the latest chuck of money is its BILLION DOLLAR slush fund. 

We all support public education and appreciate that it is not cheap. However, no matter how sincere and how well-meaning any endeavor, there is such a thing as too much. Measures H and I and related measures already approved, at ONE BILLION DOLLARS, are just too much. We deserve a plan for future capital expenditures which has far more specificity and far fewer dollars.