Voting on school bonds
November 6, 2017 5:23 AM   Subscribe

Tomorrow I'll be voting in Virginia, and though I know the people I want to vote for, there is also a school bond referendum that I need to consider. I'd appreciate some help understanding the pros and cons.

I've always just voted yes for these but I'd like to understand a little better. What are the arguments for and against bonds for funding capital improvements at schools? The county site has some basic details and in context their argument sounds solid, but I don't understand this enough to assess whether I agree. Any background, explanations, linked discussions or articles would be greatly appreciated. I'm definitely a big supporter of education but I'd like to make sure I'm helping do it in a way that's sound.
posted by brilliantine to Law & Government (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I mostly do what you do - always vote yes. Now that I have young kids, I'm even more in this camp. For me, the thing that it comes down to is that the people who often argue against school bonds are people who are advocating for a smaller government. They think that school spending is wasteful and particularly spending on things beyond "the basics," which they define as basically, reading and math. So any art is wasteful. Any music is wasteful. Any special education is wasteful. Some of this has gotten traction at the state level such that funding for public schools has dropped quite a lot in the name of keeping taxes low. As such, school districts need to fund more basic things using bonds.

To me, I would seek out the people who are advocating for this (it seems like you've already done this) and people who are advocating against this. Reading the comments here would seem to get into some of the arguments against which seem to be very standard "small government" arguments. These arguments don't hold much weight with me, but maybe that will help you decide.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:22 AM on November 6, 2017


In general, operating funds for schools and capital funds are levied separately (there are actually 6-7 levies but let's stay simple). These funds can't be used for purposes other than their levy ... I can't use funds levied for routine operations (teacher salaries, supplies) for buildings, and vice versa.

It's essentially impossible to cover the costs of significant capital expenditures within normal school levies, as they aren't designed for that -- school yearly capital levies cover maintenance, mostly, and are generally capped. If your district needs a new school building, an expansion to an existing building, or significant renovations, they will have to sell bonds. They can't shift money away from salaries, or technology, or whatever -- all those funds are earmarked. And there's an issue of cost: My district had a total operating budget of about $150,000,000/year serving 14,000 students (covering all levies -- teacher salaries and also building improvements/maintenance and everything else like gas for buses). A new elementary school costs $20 million or so; a new high school runs about $45 million. For most districts, it simply isn't possible to absorb capital costs that large within the yearly budget (and most districts aren't large enough to do much smoothing of the cost ... if you've got one high school you're replacing once or twice a century, you can't really absorb that in your normal tax levy, they're not designed that way). But, good news! This is exactly the problem bonds solve!

It's worth looking at the actual proposed projects, but they're almost always worth it. I'd only vote no if they're building a huge-ass school in an area of declining population that will clearly never be fully utilized, or they're building a Texas-style semi-pro football stadium. Otherwise it's almost always fairly necessary, unless you have specific local financial mismanagement.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:57 AM on November 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


Eyebrows' answer is great because it gets at a common misconception when it comes to these ballot issues. People too often think that it's all one big pot of money, but it isn't. Bonds don't put off necessary increases in the operational levy, yet people often talk as if they do. (And vice versa) This confusion extends into municipal and even state level funding, though exact rules and procedures vary by state.
posted by wierdo at 7:09 AM on November 6, 2017


Fairfax County, Virginia does not have specific tax levies for schools. There is a general fund that is funded via a portion of the sales tax, real estate taxes, personal property tax, and various general small fees/taxes. (Small district talk is interesting as a general topic, but not very relevant to Fairfax. Its FY 2018 school budget is $2.8 billion.)

Bonds for schools (and parks, which are also common bond issues in Fairfax County) exist to provide a dedicated-ish funding stream for a large fund available quickly. They basically mean there's a chance the County board may decided to have slightly higher property tax rates in the future to be able to service the bonds properly.

For good or bad, this is the way a large percentage of Virginia localities use to provide additional funding to schools and parks. Basically vote "Yes" unless there is some very specific thing you object to the bond intends to fund. A single failing bond will not cause Virginia to change the power it grants to the counties nor will it change how counties try to fund schools. So they will either try again or just have to cut other services to do something.
posted by skynxnex at 7:33 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


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