School Bonds: Martinez Unified Using Controversial Long-Term, High-Interest Loans

Martinez is among hundreds of districts throughout the state using capital appreciation bonds to finance major projects. Taxpayers will repay at least $30 million for a $25 million loan.

Back in 2011, the Martinez Unified School District issued bonds to borrow almost $25 million. By the time taxpayers retire the debt, they will have paid at least an extra $5 million in interest. 

Martinez Unified is among the California school systems that are borrowing against the future to build facilities and improve infrastructure, according to a report in the Bay Citizen, which is also the source of the figures above. 

The publication says 1,350 school districts and government agencies throughout the state are using capital appreciation bonds to finance major projects.

Throughout the state, these capital appreciation bonds have allowed the agencies to borrow billions of dollars while delaying payments, in some cases for decades.

Another district using the bonds is the Acalanes Union High School District.

The Bay Citizen chart shows that in 2010 and 2011 the Acalanes district borrowed almost $68 million. It estimates the district will make $201 million in interest payment for a total of $269 million.

Mt. Diablo Unified School District will pay $100 million to settle a loan of $50 million from bonds issued in 2010. 

In 2010, the Walnut Creek School District borrowed almost $2 million. It will pay $1.6 million in interest for a total of $3.6 million.

Typically, school districts begin paying off bonds within six months and end up paying two to three times what they borrowed, the The Bay Citizen said.

The bond market is like any other capital market, whether you're borrowing money from Big Vinnie or Wall Street: The more you need the money, the more you'll have to pay for it.

Bill Clark, an associate superintendent for the Contra Costa County Office of Education, said that the state imposes a debt issuance ceiling for school districts based on property values. Districts from higher income areas have little problem issuing bonds for their construction needs. However, districts from lower income areas have to resort to more creative bond issuance plans.

"The schools cost about the same money, but the low wealth district can't build using more acceptable funding methods," said Clark. "Don't the low wealth kids deserve to have effective classroom environments that contribute to their academic success?"

With capital appreciation bonds, some school districts will end up paying more than 10 times what they borrowed. In some cases, the payments don't start for 20 years. In some cases, the facilities that were built with the bonds will have been replaced by the time the money is paid off.

District officials usually decide what type of bonds to use after voters have approved the money through ballot measures, The Bay Citizen reported.

Earlier this month, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson and state treasurer Bill Lockyer urged school districts to stop issuing capital appreciation bonds until the state does a thorough investigation of the practices.


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