Sweetwater Union High School District parents who live east of I-805 in Chula Vista are demanding that the district account for the way their Mello-Roos homeowner assessments are being spent. Parents are paying, in addition to property tax, a special assessment that goes to the school district, yet they believe the quality of their children’s education is declining.
Sweetwater parent Mark Witcher said in an August 11 interview, “Mello-Roos taxes keep going up — they were just raised 2 percent — but we weren’t even informed of the increase and haven’t had a chance to give our input about them.”
One of Witcher’s main concerns is that the Mello-Roos money collected by the Sweetwater district is being misspent. The district used $1.5 million in Mello-Roos monies to purchase iPads for all of its seventh graders. Witcher said, “I don’t believe that was appropriate. The money is supposed to be used for new schools or infrastructure, not for iPads.”
Witcher also said he listened to a video made by Sweetwater interim superintendent Ed Brand in which Brand talked about the millions in Mello-Roos funds the district has collected. Witcher wondered if the district has millions in the accounts, why hasn’t there been a swimming pool built at Otay Ranch High School, as promised. His son, who is on the water-polo team, had to be bused to a distant west-side swimming pool for his daily practice.
The Sweetwater Union High School District has 17 Mello-Roos districts, all but one located on the east side. Overlapping most of these districts are the Chula Vista Elementary School District’s 13 Mello-Roos districts and the City of Chula Vista’s 13 bond-issuing Mello-Roos districts, as well as the city’s Mello-Roos maintenance districts. Mello-Roos homeowners pay property tax in addition to Mello-Roos taxes; however, unlike property taxes, Mello-Roos taxes are not deductible.
The Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act of 1982 set up the new tax in the wake of Proposition 13; the taxes provided developers with money for infrastructure. Bonds were sold in order to pay for the construction of schools, roads, sewers, and parks.
Prior to Proposition 13, which was passed in 1978, school boards and city councils looked to local property taxes to finance these projects. Ironically, the popular Proposition 13 vote that sought to reduce and control taxes tied new homeowners to a higher parcel tax that, in the case of the Sweetwater Mello-Roos districts, has a built-in annual increase of 2 percent.
In the early 1980s, shortly after the passage of Prop 13, vast tracts of undeveloped land in eastern Chula Vista lay heavy on developers’ hands. Because property tax was no longer available for development, Mello-Roos became the tool to finance the city’s east-side expansion.
Gerald Hanono, a native Chula Vistan and Stanford University student, wrote a 110-page thesis titled “California Dreamin’” on the effects of Mello-Roos on Chula Vista. Hanono wrote, “Mello-Roos made its entrance to Chula Vista in 1986 when, after being petitioned by the EastLake Co., the [Chula Vista Elementary School District] Board of Trustees voted 4-1 to begin the process for the EastLake I development. The [Sweetwater Union High School District] soon followed suit. Since the EastLake Co. held all the land (the houses were constructed but not sold), the rest of the process was academic; homeowners were to be forced to pay the bond assessments.”
According to information Hanono obtained from the San Diego County tax assessor, Mello-Roos assessments vary dramatically. In 2011, the total median annual Mello-Roos tax paid by a resident of EastLake I was $970.64; Rancho del Rey, $1145.00; EastLake II, $1146.02; Otay Ranch, $3255.54; and EastLake III, $3487.82.
The total Mello-Roos tax collected from a resident is shared between the agencies that administer the Mello-Roos districts. Hanono demonstrates the disbursement: “For fiscal year 2011–2012, the median EastLake I resident, whose home was constructed in l988, will pay $970.64 in Mello-Roos assessments, which breaks down to $727.60 for its Sweetwater facilities district and $242.68 for its Chula Vista Elementary facilities district.”
At the other end of the spectrum is an Otay Ranch home, built in 2001, that pays a total of $3255.54 in Mello-Roos taxes, with $1008.14 for the Sweetwater Union High School District, $815.40 for the Chula Vista Elementary School District, and $1432 in other Mello-Roos assessments.
While all the homeowners claim the same educational benefits, the numbers indicate that some subdivisions are paying more than others. The disparity between subdivisions is further exacerbated by the fact that another eastern subdivision, Rolling Hills Ranch, pays no Mello-Roos.
Many people moved to Mello-Roos districts because of the schools — they are willing to pay more if it buys their children a better education. But Sweetwater has not enjoyed a good reputation in the past few years, and when some Mello-Roos homeowners found out that their fees had just been increased, they requested a meeting with Sweetwater superintendent Ed Brand. They scheduled a meeting in an Eastlake school for Thursday, August 30, but had to relocate to the Otay Ranch Town Center mall when Brand backed out.
At the meeting, parents discussed their discontent — both with Brand backing out and with Mello-Roos issues. They argued that the benefit from the extra money they pay is being diluted because of a recent policy instituted by Brand referred to as “open boundaries.” The policy allows any child in the district to transfer to any school in the district. As a consequence, parents say, there was a migration of students from west-side schools into east-side schools at the beginning of the 2012 school year. According to the Mello-Roos parents, this influx caused traffic problems, classroom overcrowding, delays in students getting textbooks, and difficulty for students getting through long lunch lines.
Parents claim that many of the students coming to the east-side schools are escaping low-achieving schools on the west side.
At the Otay Ranch mall meeting, parent Jeff Jackson asked, “Why am I paying for someone else’s poor performance? If Imperial Beach [west side] schools are having problems, don’t take it out on my kid’s education.”