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Bay Area voters to see various school bond measures this election

Multiple ballot measures call on voters to invest in Bay Area school districts
Multiple ballot measures call on voters to invest in Bay Area school districts 04:50

This March primary election may be remembered as 'the year of the school bond measure' as a number of districts across the Bay Area are asking voters to approve billions of dollars in new taxes.  

But some are wondering why now?

 "Hey!  What's up guys," said Principal Dr. Monique Walton as she ducked into one of the classrooms at Mt Eden High School in Hayward.  

To her it feels like something old is new again.

"It's open, it's airy, it's bright.  And it's a great experience for our students," she said, surveying the newly-renovated space. 

The room has new heating and air conditioning, new paint and floors, electric window blinds, and a teaching wall with an 85-inch screen television. Teacher Karen Stevenson said her class has a completely different feel than just a few months ago.

"It's a huge difference," she said.  "Our classrooms were, like, from the 60s and 70s before."  

"It was bad.  It was old, it was worn down," Dr. Walton agreed.

In the next building over, nothing has changed. There is no air conditioning, and the old boiler is broken, so the classroom is cooled and heated with fans and a couple of space heaters. Hayward Unified's Superintendent, Dr. Jason Reimann said the ongoing refurbishment of Mt. Eden is something that's needed district-wide.

"The cost, in terms of not doing modernization, has been overwhelming," he said.  "We have aging facilities whereby we need to catch up with making up with a lot of the capital repairs and improvements that other districts made back 20 to 30 years ago."

 So, the district put Measure I on the March ballot, a bond measure that, according to the ballot language, will raise $550 million. But the true cost, including interest, is buried in the fine print:  a whopping $1.16 billion. And the measure is being proposed while district homeowners are still paying for three previous bond measures.  

"So, in this particular case, there is more money that is going to be spent on interest to the Wall Street bond holders than there will be to actually build the projects in the school district," said Jason Bezis, and attorney for the Alameda County Taxpayers Association, which opposes Measure I. 

Bezis said, by law, school bond measures are required to list specific projects. But in the ballot proposal, Measure I simply includes all school sites, including "all current or future District sites."

 "It is a list of every school facility possible and about every possible thing that can be done construction-wise. So, it is not specific projects," said Bezis.

 And he points out that the list even includes "acquisition and/or construction of teacher and/or workforce housing,"     

 "There's some concern when people go and vote for this whether they're going to be fixing a dilapidated school, or whether they're going to be building or buying a dormitory for school district employees," said Bezis. 

But, despite being on the list, the superintendent insists they have no intention of using the money for that.  

 "There is no plan that I'm aware of in terms of us engaging in using the bond funds to pay for workforce housing," said Dr. Reimann. 

If it all seems a bit vague, Bay Area political strategist Eric Zell said that's probably no accident. He said the idea is to lull opponents to sleep.

"It is not an unusual strategy in trying to pass bond and tax measures to seek a lower turnout election," he said. "And you sort of 'low-key' the campaign because you don't want potential 'no' voters, who are anti-tax, to show up."

Just like at Mt. Eden High, there are always things that could use funding, and many Bay Area districts are floating bond measures in this upcoming primary election. Two other notable proposals are Measure C in Sunnyvale, which would raise $214 million in bonds and Measure A from the Tamalpais Union High School District that would raise $517 million. That measure will also cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars by the time it's paid off.  

So, non-voters who skip the polls because they think there's nothing important on the ballot may be surprised when they open their next property tax bill.

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