The Winters Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees moved forward at a meeting Dec. 17 on several items related to Measure W, a $20 million school bond measure passed by voters in November.
At the meeting, the board certified election results, appointed a citizens’ oversight committee and approved an application to the California State Board of Education to waive a code requirement for bonding capacity.
Additionally, Meredith Johnson, an attorney at the Dannis Woliver Kelley law firm, gave a presentation on how school bonds work.
Johnson defined a bond as a debt, or obligation, that must be repaid in return for funding that can only be spent on capital improvements, such as brick-and-mortar construction projects. The bonds are repaid by taxpayers, with interest, through an increase in property taxes for local residents. Bond proceeds are held in a special building fund with the county treasurer, Johnson said, to make sure they’re spent for the proper purposes.
Johnson said Measure W, which passed with about 60 percent of the vote in November, is the fourth Winters JUSD bond measure approved by voters since 2014. Measure R, a $15 million measure, passed in June 2014. It was followed by Measure D, a $17 million measure, in November 2016 and Measure P, a $20 million measure, in November 2018.
There are two different voter approval thresholds required for a bond measure to pass, Johnson said. Most districts, including Winters JUSD, use a method created by California Proposition 39, which was approved by voters in 2000, instead of the traditional method. The main reason districts choose the Prop. 39 method is because only 55 percent of voters need to vote to approve the measure for it to pass, as opposed to 66 percent for the traditional method, Johnson said. Bond funds issued under Prop. 39 can also be used for furnishing or equipping school facilities, which isn’t the case with the traditional method.
“Building a school gets you part of the way, but if you can’t put anything in that school, if you can’t buy desks or whiteboards, basketball hoops or ovens for a cafeteria, you still have a long way to go in terms of finishing your facilities,” Johnson said.
In exchange for the lower voter threshold and ability to use the bond funds on furnishing facilities, a few accountability measures are added to Prop. 39 bond measures, Johnson said. Voters must be given a bond project list, which is a list of projects the district intends to spend money on. Additionally, a citizen’s oversight committee that monitors the district’s bond program spending must be created. There’s also an annual audit requirement, as well as tax rate limits.
There are two tax rate limits, Johnson said. For one, Prop. 39 bonds can’t be projected to cause the tax rate to rise above $60 per $100,000 of assessed valuation for any property subject to the rise in property taxes caused by the bond. The valuation is determined by tax value on the county tax roll, and not by market value.
For example, Johnson said, a house that’s assessed at $300,000 can’t have a tax levied against it requiring a payment of more than $180 for a school bond. But the tax rate max applies only once per election, which means each bond measure maintains its own cap.
The other tax rate limit is a general restriction on the amount of bonds the district can issue, and relates to the dollar amount of bonds that are outstanding, Johnson said. The limit calculated by using the total assessed value of the district, and only 2.5 percent of that value can be outstanding.
But the requirement is waivable by the California Board of Education. To request a waiver, a school board must hold a public hearing and have union support. The waiver also needs to be designed to apply for a limited amount of time.
Johnson said Winters JUSD received a bonding capacity waiver in 2019 that allowed the district to carry up to 4.49 percent of its assessed value in bonds through 2032, about $31 million in bonds. The board unanimously approved a waiver Dec. 17 to raise this capacity and make room for Measure W.
Johnson also elaborated on the duties and importance of the citizens’ oversight committee. The committee must be in place 60 days after an election is certified, Johnson said. The citizens’ oversight committee must have a minimum of seven members, including at least one senior citizen, a representative of a taxpayer association, a parent of a current student in the district, one local business representative and a member of a parent-teacher association .
The committee can’t include employees, vendors or contractors of the district. And immediate family members should also be independent.
“Anyone who receives any kind of financial compensation from the district should not be a member of the citizens’ oversight committee,” Johnson said. “The same goes true for those family members. We want people who can come to the meetings, receive information from the district, and really think about it without any kind of interest in the receipt of that information.”
The committee’s purpose is to inform the public about how bond revenues are being spent and to make sure revenues are only being spent for the purposes outlined by the district in the project list, Johnson said.
After Johnson’s presentation, the board unanimously voted to certify the election results for the November election, to establish the citizens’ oversight committee, and to approve a tax rate limit waiver to the California Board of Education.