Standing in a bucket


By Marsha Sutton

Although results are not yet finalized, it appears that the San Dieguito Union High School District has surpassed the required 55 percent needed by voters to approve its bond, Proposition AA. With 55.30 percent supporting the measure as of press time, SDUHSD squeaked it out.

On the other hand, it looks like the Del Mar Union School District’s bond, Proposition CC, will not pass, although support for the measure rises each time new postings are provided by the County Registrar of Voters. As of now, Proposition CC has 54.18 percent, just shy of the needed 55 percent.

Not to dampen San Dieguito’s victory, but 55.30 is not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. And Del Mar’s 54.18 is hardly a resounding defeat.

It’s noteworthy to remember that only a few years ago the threshold to pass these bonds was set at two-thirds. Because it was exceedingly difficult to reach that number, which sends a very clear signal of strong voter approval, the threshold was lowered to 55 percent to make passage easier. But when the vote is so close to that 55 percent, it can hardly be called a mandate either way.

As state funding has dried up, school districts finding themselves on the brink of financial calamity have increasingly turned to General Obligation bonds to close a funding gap.

But it was never intended that 30-year construction bonds, meant for long-term capital improvements, should pay for routine maintenance, unidentified future needs, and technology with a three-year life span, like ChromeBooks and iPads. San Dieguito’s bond does not specify this use of the money, but many other districts statewide did.

The situation has become so dire that districts are grasping at any opportunity they can to stabilize funding, as has the state.

California’s Proposition 30, which passed with 54.9 percent as of this writing, is a tax and not a bond and therefore needed only a simple majority to pass. Had it required 55 percent, it would have failed.

The aggravating lie perpetuated by Prop. 30 supporters is that its failure would have resulted in a shortened school year. That’s absolutely not true. What it would have meant is less money for school districts, which have the option to shorten the school year to save money.

School districts also have another option: asking employees to carry some of the burden and accept minimal reductions in pay and/or benefits, something most non-governmental workers have been forced to do during the past years of a stagnant economy.

Instead, the public is threatened with cuts to educational services and programs, as if there is no alternative.

Even as funding has been reduced, salaries and benefits for employees have continued to rise and encroach more and more on district operating budgets, with some at 90 to 95 percent of the total budget.

Yet union employees, adults in a system that is supposed to serve students first, earn more money regularly, regardless of declining funding – and more importantly, regardless of skill and classroom ability. More years in the system equals more pay, period. All efforts to tie performance to pay raises have gone nowhere fast. Meanwhile, districts cut programs for kids.

When personal incomes dip, employees in private industry generally make downward adjustments in their lifestyles and don’t continue to spend at previous levels. But in lean times, financially strapped school districts seem to find it impossible to live within their means and avoid deficit spending, because that would mean negotiating for more reasonable contracts and minor concessions with labor which accounts for the highest percentage of every district’s expenditures.

Instead, it’s easier to paint pictures of doom in the classroom and ask taxpayers for more money.

Once employees agree to tighten their belts along with the rest of the nation, then districts claiming poverty might have more credibility.

The problems in Sacramento are monumental, but throwing more money into the sinkhole will not solve the fundamental issues at the root of the current panic in the education community: fiscal mismanagement and waste in Sacramento, state lawmakers’ reluctance to take on special interests, and the unwillingness of school districts, including trustees who are elected to be responsible fiduciary stewards of taxpayer money, to enter into serious negotiations with employee unions.

The Prop. 30 tax just kicks the can down the road. It won’t be long, if nothing fundamental is done to fix the state’s chronic problems, before voters are faced once again with more requests for higher taxes and bonds.

Prop. 30 gives no money to education and does not guarantee that the new money will be used to avoid further cuts to education. Rather, it relies on promises by politicians to be honorable.

Backers of the measure claim it will be impossible to ask voters again for more money if promises are broken. But it happens year after year, which is how this mess developed over decades. Lawmakers and locally elected officials afraid to tangle with unions consistently come to taxpayers hat in hand, begging for dollars to sustain a broken system. They pledge each time to spend wisely and threaten painful cuts to programs if their demands for more money aren’t satisfied.

More money does not make a better school district, nor create smarter students. Students will not learn more if schools get a fresh coat of paint or some fences. What matters are high standards, educated and involved parents, and a strong teaching force that is rewarded for ability.

Washington, D.C., the classic example, spends more per pupil than any other district in the country and has some of the lowest levels of student achievement nation-wide.

Although no one can dispute the need to improve California’s quality of education, Proposition 30 will continue to feed a beast growing increasingly out of control and will prolong the pain of an unsustainable system.

Furthermore, hitting constituents with more taxes communicates to legislators that they can continue to waste money and ignore education, and all they have to do is beg for more using threats of shorter school years and larger class sizes, and we’ll open our wallets.

Sadly, the passage of Prop. 30 and new taxes mean voters approved status quo over reform.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.”

Marsha Sutton can be reached at