School Bond Measures Leave Our Children Holding the Bag

Contrary to what proponents of school bond measures would have you believe, school bonds simply pass tremendous debt obligations to our children.  Bond proponents will tell you that school bond measures benefit the kids.  But if we set aside our initial emotional response to that seemingly appealing plea, we will see that in fact the real beneficiaries of these bonds are us – the grown-ups. 

Five school districts (Healdsburg, Guerneville, Old Adobe, Wright and Sebastopol) are seeking passage of bond measures on the June 5 ballot (and Rohnert Park-Cotati is seeking a parcel tax) .  The Press Democrat in a recent editorial (April 22) endorsed all five school bond measures (as well as the parcel tax) on the June 5 ballot as an investment in our future.  That is of course the common argument and one almost universally offered by proponents of these bonds.  And it is an emotionally appealing argument.  But let’s look deeper.  Let’s take a look beyond the sentimental rhetoric and see what’s really going on.

The PD editorial overlooks the primary objection to these bonds.  Sure, school officials should have anticipated leaky roofs and other needed repairs that come with maintaining one’s investment in buildings and grounds, but the primary folly of these bonds is the mismatching of debt repayment periods to the useful life of the items being purchased.  These bonds are to be repaid over periods as long as forty years.  And while some of the bond proceeds may be used for repairs and improvements that might last that long, much of the money will be used for relatively short shelf-life items that will have long since been retired to the landfill by the time the bonds come due.  Items such as computers and computer-related technology have useful lives perhaps as short as five years.  Other items such as solar panels might last as long as twenty.  The sad reality is that most of the new purchases, improvements and repairs to be funded with these bond proceeds will have outlived their useful life and become obsolete by the time payment is due.

Have we learned nothing from the lessons of the past decade?  Borrowing money to be repaid in the future for purchases enjoyed today is the very practice that has contributed to so many homeowners losing their homes.  But these bonds compound the problem because it is not the metaphorical homeowners who pay the price for profligate borrowing, it is their children.  Our children.  Ask yourself who’s going to pay for these bonds when they come due in forty years.  Then ask yourself if it is really the children who benefit from these bonds.  Sure, some short-term improvements will enhance the public school experience for some, but is mortgaging the future the best way to put new computers in the classroom today?

The real beneficiaries of these bonds are us, not the kids.  We look at the condition of our schools, parks, and roads and say we should do something about it.  But we fail to address the root causes behind the deplorable condition of these public institutions.  We throw up our arms and walk away from the out of control costs of public employee compensation and pensions that demand ever increasing shares of tax dollars once used to fund those schools, parks and roads.  This is clearly a case of treating the symptoms while ignoring the cause.  By ignoring what may appear to some as an insurmountable problem and opting instead to borrow money today our children will have to repay tomorrow, we rationalize our behavior as being for the benefit of the children.  We conveniently ignore the mountain of debt and world of diminished government services we leave to our children because, well, let’s face it, we won’t have to pay for it.  This we say is for the children.  We only delude ourselves while saddling our children with a future made bleaker by our actions.  Surely we can do better than this.

Dan Drummond

Executive Director

Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association

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