SFUSD proposes most expensive bond measure ever amid district's financial crisis

Tuesday, May 28, 2024
SFUSD proposes costliest bond measure ever amid financial crisis
San Francisco voters will decide on a $790 million bond measure, the costliest ever, to improve school facilities amid a financial crisis.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- This November, San Francisco voters will decide on a bond measure to improve school facilities. It is the costliest bond ever to be voted on in the city, $790 million, as the school district is in the midst of a financial crisis. Now, new information raises some serious questions about how the school district has spent money from past bond measures.

Bonds to renovate school facilities are and always will be a never-ending cost.

"When I used to campaign for these bonds, people would always say, when is enough, when are you going to stop asking for money? I would always say, never. When are you going to stop fixing your home?" said Jill Wynns, the longest serving school board commissioner, now retired.

She recalls the track record of some of these bonds. It hasn't always been stellar.

In the 1990s, under then Superintendent Bill Rojas, there was a history of improper spending practices with bond money.

Here's what the incoming superintendent at the time, Arlene Ackerman told the Chronicle in May 2000:

"Basically, there were no control systems in place. It was difficult to get answers. Documents had been destroyed or were missing. Decisions were made that were clearly outside of what voters had approved."

MORE: SFUSD officials under pressure from state amid ongoing budget crisis

The board of the San Francisco Unified School District gathering Tuesday night for a special meeting to discuss the district's budget problems.

Since then, the bond expenditure process has seen more accountability and transparency, until 2016 when voters passed a $744 million bond. In that bond, school modernization projects and kitchen upgrades were promised and, for the most part, successfully delivered. But some of those promises failed.

Supervisor Shamann Walton who represents the Bay View District, was a school board commissioner at that time.

"There was talk about a new school in the southeast section of San Francisco because we have all the development, all the new housing coming so there are things that were in that bond that we don't see coming up as a priority anymore," Walton said.

In 2016, voters also liked that the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts would be finally relocated to the heart of the Performing Arts District.

One hundred million dollars was set aside while the district attempted a now unsuccessful fundraising campaign.

Bond money was even used for the architectural drawings of the new school.

MORE: SFUSD faces $421 million deficit; district could cut more than 900 vacant jobs

Wynns says the district was supposed to start a campaign to raise money, but dropped the ball.

"They did not have either the administration or the development people or the fundraising capacity to do that," she added.

Phil Halperin is the co-chair of the proposed bond measure campaign.

"I think the school district acted very fiduciarily and fiscally intelligent by not investing so much money in one particular school," insisted Halperin.

Instead, the money for the Ruth Asawa School was used to fund other projects, including the construction of a new school in Mission Bay that wasn't even included in the initial 2016 bond.

Susan Stauter is the school district's former artistic director.

"I don't know, as a voter, how I feel about voting over and over again for something and being told it just disappeared, it just went away. It becomes a trust issue," she told ABC7 News.

ABC7 News also discovered that there was little oversight of how the 2016 bond money was being spent.

Because of the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to recruit people who would serve on the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee known as CBOC and required by law. It wasn't until the summer of 2021 that a new committee was finally formed.

MORE: SF teachers, parents claim school district involved in years of 'financial mismanagement'

Here's part of the discussion at the Committee's most recent meeting on May 1, 2024:

"For several years, this bond program not only did not have a CBOC as required by law, it was not producing annual audited reports which is the absolute bare minimum, not merely required by law, but that any reasonable person should expect would be provided for the public."

Last year, that committee found that the school district used 2016 bond money to defend against a lawsuit after the school board voted in 2019 to cover up murals at George Washington High School.

What is known is that SFUSD faces a financial crisis not seen in years.

The state has warned the district that schools may have to close or be consolidated.

This leaves voters with the obvious question.

"You're in a crisis, you can't afford things, why are you asking us to do this and they need a good answer for that," demanded Wynns.

Their explanation:

"The good news is that the school bond program operates alongside the rest of the school district finances. It is managed separately both from an operational perspective and financial perspective," explained Halperin.

San Francisco Unified has already announced that another bond measure will be placed on the ballot in 2028.

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