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.”
Instead of attending the meeting, Brand posted a video on the district website explaining the open-boundaries program and the way the district spends the Mello-Roos money.
Brand explains the district’s use of Mello-Roos funds in this way: “Let’s say I’m a student at Eastlake, and I apply and go to the program at Mar Vista High School. The money from the Mello-Roos area that I come from actually can follow me to that school. So, district-wide, approximately 25 percent of our students are in Mello-Roos attendance areas and 25 percent of the building can be charged as a result of that. At Mar Vista High School, if we wanted to build a fence, for instance, we could charge approximately 25 percent, or the number of students who are at Mar Vista High from a Mello-Roos district, for the cost of that fence and its installation.”
Parents think the message equivocates. Is Brand saying he can spend 25 percent of the Mello-Roos funds anywhere in the district, or is he saying the school district will spend on a school only the percentage of Mello-Roos money proportionate to the Mello-Roos students who attend that school?
Luis and Veronica Cruz, parents of Eastlake High students, attended the Otay Ranch mall meeting. They said the overcrowding was so bad at their son’s school that he had to miss lunch for four days while he stood in line to sign up for the PSAT test.
They also stated that their daughter’s biology/forensics teacher’s budget for the year was only $47. They told me the teacher was reduced to using road kill for assignments. In a follow-up interview, their daughter told me the teacher is currently using a road-kill specimen to demonstrate how bodies decompose.
Veronica Cruz said the conditions at the school have begun to remind her of when she went to school in Tijuana. She said you had to bring the school’s supplies — bleach, toilet paper, everything.
She said she and her husband have worked hard to move to a good location so their kids can have a good education.