Proposition A - School Bond

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2003 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Prop. A authorizes the San Francisco Board of Education to issue up to $295 million in general obligation bonds to meet disability access requirements, health and safety codes, and to rehabilitate the buildings and grounds of 31 schools. There will be a $39.7 million State match, for a total rehabilitation cost of $335 million.

To comply with state law, the measure specifies which schools will be affected and what work will be done at each. Items not in the measure cannot be substituted, and the measure does not guarantee that there will be enough money to perform all the listed work.

In addition to annual performance and financial audits, the Board will appoint an independent citizens’ oversight committee to inform the public about how the bond monies are being spent. The bonds will be issued for 25 to 40 years, and are estimated to cost the owners of a home assessed at $300,000 a maximum of $82.98 a year (remember that average assessed value in California is less than average market value because Prop. 13 limits property tax increases to 1% a year except when a property is sold). Because State law does not allow a pass-through for bonds, renters will pay nothing. Under state law, Prop. A needs a 55% vote to pass.

Why it is on the ballot

The School Board placed Prop. A on the ballot to partially address the significant deterioration of the district’s school facilities. The School District estimates that there is a total of $1.7 billion in repairs needed, but the remainder must be addressed by future measures. The District has a sorry record of performing such repairs, even with money allocated to them. From 1988 through 1997, voters approved $337 million in tax increases and three bond measures to deal with many of the same issues as Prop. A.

Poor management, nonexistent financial controls, fraud, and kickbacks were the norm. Cost overruns were common. More than 20% of bond funds were used illegally to pay administrative salaries, including the district’s entire janitorial and maintenance departments. A citizens’ oversight committee was kept in the dark. School board members claimed ignorance. When the scandal was uncovered by new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, some employees were fired and some jailed.

In the end, much promised work was not done, and some schools, due to be rebuilt, never were. The new superintendent and a somewhat different School Board promise that this time things will be better.


  • Over $400 million in bond money and state funds have already been expended by the SFUSD since 1988 for rehabilitating facilities. However, many projects promised to the voters have not materialized and in many cases funds were poorly or improperly used, with deficient construction management, fraud, and waste. Prop. A reads disturbingly like the promises made in prior bond measures.
  • While Prop. A could fund its specified projects, there are no assurances that all of them would be completed. As the district has experienced before, cost overruns on early projects leave no money available for later rehabilitations.
  • The District acknowledges that it lacks staff and money to maintain the rehabilitated facilities.
  • It is almost certain that these physical upgrades will not be adequately maintained.
  • The overhead costs of the Department of Public Works are notoriously high. DPW’s involvement could benefit public employees at the expense of the city’s schoolchildren.
  • The up to $82.98 annual increase in taxes for a typical homeowner seems small, but must be added to the significant amount that one already pays for school bonds and taxes.
  • Tenants get a free ride because landlords cannot pass the increased cost through to tenants Recommendation Under the effective leadership of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the District is reversing years of drifting management, negligence, and occasional criminality.

SPUR's analysis

Prop. A addresses deficiencies in eight high schools, seven middle schools, and sixteen elementary schools. Its funds would repair or replace roofs, heating systems, electrical and plumbing systems, doors and windows, damaged walls, ceilings, floors, restroom fixtures, lockers, drinking fountains, stadium and auditorium seating, and other worn out or damaged facilities.

Renovated areas will be painted. In a few schools, a new building will replace temporary bungalows. The work designated for each school is quite specific, but if costs exceed estimates, not all the projects will get done. Because the number of students in the city’s public schools is declining, there will be no net increase in the amount of space. A long-promised (and previously bond-funded) rehabilitation of the former district offices at 135 Van Ness to house the School of the Arts would receive $15 million from Prop. A, but only if the rest of the necessary funds are raised from other government and philanthropic sources—the Phase I estimate for the School for the Arts is $45 million with a total bill of $90 million, $10 million in FEMA money has been granted.

Thus another $20 million is necessary just for Phase I. $2 million would be used to “green” some of the bleak asphalt and concrete schoolyards and provide environmental education opportunities for kids. Elementary schools would have first priority for the “green schoolyards” funding, followed by middle and high schools. As a founding member of the Green Schoolyards Alliance, SPUR is particularly enthusiastic about this new program of teaching natural science while restoring natural process in the environment.

One major driver of the proposed improvements is the threat of lawsuits from parents of handicapped students over inaccessible facilities. An unspecified amount would be used for planning further accessibility work at schools not included in Prop. A. Passage of Prop. A would attract $39.7 million in state matching funds. The District says it would like to use the City’s Department of Public Works to help manage this large number of projects.

However, any such contracts would have to be competitively bid. It’s important to understand that this $295 million is only a down payment on the District’s $1.7 billion backlog of repairs, rehabilitation, and renovation. The board promises another bond measure in about three years, and there are likely to be others after that. Under State Proposition 39, a 55% majority is needed to pass these bonds. The Board of Education must appoint a seven-person oversight committee to inform the public of the progress of bond-funded projects. A master facility list is included in the bond measure. Proponents state: * Many of San Francisco’s public schools are unattractive places which fail to meet basic health, safety, and disability-access codes.

Children need a healthy environment for learning, and the funds from this bond measure would help improve conditions in 31 schools throughout the city * Providing money for the green schoolyards program is an important step forward for the city. SPUR worked to have this program included in the bond measure. Hopefully, the modest startup funding will be enough to create demonstration projects in every neighborhood and build long-term public support for the concept * The current school administration is committed to meet the State’s oversight requirements and has worked diligently to remedy the problems caused by past administrations. It should not suffer retribution for their failures

Prop. A’s defeat would be a severe setback for San Francisco’s schoolchildren. Superintendent Ackerman deserves a District that offers more unified public support—and if she left, it would become even harder to attract a superintendent with the skills to improve this difficult a district. Perhaps the biggest concern is that there are no funds to properly maintain the facilities that Prop. A (and bond measures to come) will rehabilitate. But the reasons go beyond San Francisco. In 1978, California’s voters passed Prop. 13, slashing local property tax rates—the prime source of school funding—by two-thirds. Since then, school funds are largely doled out by the state. California is now 38th in the nation in expenditures per pupil, behind North Carolina, but still proudly ahead of Louisiana. (Older SPUR members will remember when we ranked 11th, and produced the best-educated, most productive generation of Californians in history.) As long as Californians choose to grossly underfund our schools, keeping our school buildings safe and attractive will lose out to public demands for more instruction—even though research shows that a good environment promotes learning.

The cycle of “rebuild it and let it deteriorate” will continue, as will the passing on of high costs to future generations.1 The San Francisco Unified School District and the city’s voters must start tomorrow to find a better alternative to the cycle of issuing bonds for deferred maintenance, followed by lack of maintenance, followed by more bonds.

SPUR hopes to be part of the long-term solution. SPUR continues to believe that renters should not be exempt from paying for bonds. All citizens, whether they own or rent homes, should be willing to invest in the future of their community, and shoulder their fair share of the bond measures they vote to pass. Waivers for low-income people make much more sense than a blanket exemption for all renters. Ultimately, our misgivings about Prop. A are outweighed by the overriding priority of improving San Francisco’s public schools .

This policy goal is simply too important to allow us to delay the proposed facilities improvements. While we share in the city’s anger at the past mismanagement of public funds in the School District, our conclusion is that the State has put management controls in place to allow an honest, if not always efficient, expenditure of the proposed bonds. SPUR recommends a Yes vote on Prop. A.

In addition to our support for this measure, SPUR recommends that the School District should adopt the best practices for school design and construction of the California Collaborative for High Performance Schools. A typical school district using this sustainable site planning and materials system reduces annual utility costs by 20 to 30 percent for the life of the renovations.

Its improved lighting and indoor air quality correlate with improved student performance and increased attendance. Since the majority of a school’s operating budget is based on average daily attendance, even a small increase can significantly boost the State’s contribution.

SPUR recommends a "Yes" vote on Prop. A.

1. One of the most promising proposals on the horizon to begin to address the legacy of Prop 13 and its devastating impacts on schools is the idea of allowing annual reassessments of commercial, but not residential, property.
While Prop. 13 was sold as a way to protect seniors from escalating property taxes, there is simply no justification for extending those property tax breaks to corporations. In fact, nothing could be more stifling of innovation and competition than a law which gives long-time corporate owners of property a leg up on companies who purchase property today.