The Right Time for a School Bond? 

Supporters of West Contra Costa's Measure D say the steep drop in construction costs makes the $380 million bond a good investment.

Trying to pass a $380 million school bond measure during the deepest recession since the 1930s may appear optimistic at best and loony at worst. But West Contra Costa Unified School District board member Charles Ramsey thinks now is the perfect time. "Why should we not take advantage of economic conditions?" he asked. "We have greater purchasing power now."

The bond measure on the June 8 ballot would raise property taxes for residents in West CoCo County, including Richmond and El Cerrito, but it also would capitalize on a 30 percent drop in construction costs because of the economy — "stretching dollars big-time," Ramsey said. "You may be able to build a brand new high school for a third of the cost."

Better known as Measure D, the Student Safety/Classroom Repair Measure would tack on an annual $48 per $100,000 of assessed property. The giant bond would pay for school infrastructural upgrades and repairs throughout West County. The money will be spent on everything from track and field maintenance to new science lab equipment at Richmond, Kennedy, Pinole Valley, Hercules, and El Cerrito high schools. Six elementary schools will get funds to mend leaky roofs, remove asbestos, and repair crumbling restrooms. A chunk of the $380 million also will go toward increased security, seismic upgrades, and expanded classroom access for disabled students.

And Measure D promises to prevent misspending or graft. It includes a provision calling for "independent audits, citizen oversight and no money for administrators' salaries." That means no salary bumps for teachers, either.

But the Contra Costa Taxpayers' Association, led by Executive Director Kris Hunt, opposes Measure D, despite having endorsed school district bonds in the past. "Our concern now is that the [district] is going out for more bonds obligating this area much over its carrying capacity," she said. "This district has issued bond after bond without really looking at the impacts." She also argued that the tax, with no senior exemptions, would hit retirees especially hard. And she called the citizen oversight committee, which already exists and is overseeing the spending of those past bonds, "toothless," noting that members have no real authority.

Ramsey acknowledged that the oversight committee's essential duty is to assess how tax money is (or isn't) being spent. But he said a yes vote is a wise investment in students, and vowed that the measure would not strain area resources. "If we exceed our bonding capacity, we can't issue it," he said of the bonds.

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