Please understand that I'm writing with deep affection. In more than 30 years as a voter, I can't recall ever voting against a local school bond. I'm enduringly grateful for a state college system that once had tuition so low I graduated without a dime of debt, just by working weekends and summers. Schools are one of the very best investments all of us make in future generations.
But please, trustees, please, take some time to push past easy analogies and ask a lot more questions about bonds before your district issues them. Slow down. Call for reinforcements. I've just started learning about school bond intricacies, but based on interviews with county treasurers, auditors and bond advisers, some off the record and some on, I've picked up a few points that might be useful to you now, with at least three Humboldt County school districts preparing to issue new bonds, two of them possibly this week.
First: County Treasurer John Bartholomew is available to help you understand the bonds your district wants to sell. You're busy educators, and he's a financial specialist who, if asked, will come to your meetings, look over your proposed bond issue, and try all he can to help. "I am willing and available and I'm happy ... to make sure that taxpayers get a fair deal," Bartholomew told me on the phone this week.
Second: You have a lot of power. You are entitled to say no to capital appreciation bonds, or no to bonds that last more than 25 years, or no to bonds that cost three or four or eight or 10 times what you borrowed, or no, really, to any individual bond in the bigger package of bonds that an underwriter will sell on your behalf. This is a consensus from several bond advisers and county treasurers. In that context, here's a hold-onto-your-wallet tip: Bond advisers often charge school districts an extra $20,000 to $50,000 for putting together a deal that includes capital appreciation bonds, or CABs, said Los Angeles County Assistant Treasurer Glenn Byers. "It's harder to sell, that's what they tell you. I say baloney, it's easier to sell. You have fewer people to talk to," Byers said in a phone interview on Monday. (Capital appreciation bonds accrue interest for years and pay it off in a big lump sum when they mature, so they're especially attractive to a relatively small group of investors with long time horizons, such as insurance companies and pension funds, Byers said. These bonds also tend to pay higher rates than current interest bonds, so they are one of the most expensive ways a school district can borrow.)
Third: Beyond Bartholomew, you've got other resources to lean on. The Los Angeles County Treasurer Tax Collector's office has been aggressively fighting school bond abuses, and Byers suggests two guidelines for prudent borrowing: Don't use bonds that take longer than 25 to 30 years to repay, and don't use a bond package whose repayment costs jump more than 5 percent in any year. (That is, if a bond package costs $100 to repay in year one, it shouldn't cost more than $105 in year two or more than $432 in year 30.)
Fourth: A bond is not like a mortgage. Really. No matter how much your bond adviser might like that analogy. A mortgage is one loan, but a bond issue usually involves many different loans, or bonds, each with different terms, which can include some real stinkers. It might help to think of it like this: If you get a $125,000 mortgage from a bank at 4 percent, you make one payment every month to one entity. But say instead you buy that same house by borrowing $100,000 at just 1 percent from your rich uncle who always loved you best. Then you run up the other $25,000 on your credit card at 18 percent. It's absolutely true that your blended interest rate is going to be way lower than that 18 percent, because you borrowed most of the money at 1 percent. It might even turn out that for your own quirky personal finances, this was the best way you could have borrowed. But no matter how good that blended rate looks, it doesn't make your credit card bill go away. It doesn't make 18 percent a good interest rate. And it doesn't mean you shouldn't have looked -- hard -- to make sure there wasn't a better way to do this deal.
Fifth: Understand growth, and don't let anyone jack up imaginary growth rates to pretend a big future tax bite will be smaller than it sounds. Partly because of laws that date back to 2000, people often talk about bonds in terms of their annual cost per $100,000 of assessed valuation. Elementary and high school districts often aim for a target of taxing each property owner no more than $30 annually for each $100,000 of assessed valuation, or AV, and unified school districts think in terms of $60 annually for each $100,000. That can be a very deceptive ratio if someone wants to assume crazy-high growth for your district. If a bond adviser tells you oh, don't worry, this bond will cost less than $30 per $100,000 even in 2050, you've got to fire back another set of questions. Start with: How fast are you assuming our district will grow, both in terms of new homes and businesses and in terms of rising values of existing property? What do you base that projection on? If you're projecting out 30 or 40 years into the future, how do your numbers compare with actual growth in our district's AV over the last 30 or 40 years? What does our county treasurer think about this projected growth rate? Should it be lower?
Sixth: You get to hire who you want, and you get to shop around. Los Angeles County's Byers recommends that before even thinking about issuing bonds, school districts should put out separate requests for proposals for a bond adviser, a bond attorney and an underwriter. Districts can save a lot of money that way, he says, and hiring each entity separately can be cheaper than a package deal. If a school district feels too small to do that on its own, it can turn to its own county treasurer for help, he said, and that treasurer in turn can touch bases with bigger counties for help and advice.
Seventh: Keep asking questions. If you're considering issuing bonds soon, here are some more good ones:
In the bond package we are considering, are there going to be any capital appreciation bonds?
If yes, why -- what are the advantages to us of using CABs, and what would we lose if we didn't use CABs?
Are our CABs callable or convertible, so that we can change them later to a less costly type of borrowing? If not, why not?
If we have CABs, what is the anticipated interest rate on each one of the individual bonds? In what year will each individual bond be repaid? And for each bond, what is the ratio of dollars we get now compared with dollars our taxpayers will have to give the bond buyer later? (Hint: a 1 to 10 ratio is a very bad answer, even for a single bond in a bigger package.)
Could we lop the costliest borrowing off the back end of our bond package and still get most of the money we need?
How much could we borrow if we didn't use these capital appreciation bonds at all and stuck entirely with current interest bonds, known as CIBs?
Does our bond adviser get more money if our package includes CABs? If yes, how much more?
And here is a P.S. for everyone who lives in Humboldt County and cares about schools. Go to the school board meetings. Talk to your elected school trustees. Demand that they ask enough questions and get enough impartial advice to do this right. Because signing up for exorbitant school bonds won't just stick the next generation or two with outsized property tax bills. It could also alienate voters who would otherwise have been ready to help next time school kids need a new science lab or just a toilet that flushes properly. Give your school board some tough love, people. It's better for everyone in the long run.
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg