Concerned Sweetwater Union High School District parents and residents lined up to ask superintendent Ed Brand questions at a November 8 meeting. They wanted an accounting of the money they have paid into the 17 Mello-Roos special tax assessment districts. They also wanted to know why Brand authorized so many student transfers that resulted in overcrowded schools.
Dissatisfaction with Mello-Roos taxes has been chronic in the state of California since the districts were created by law in 1982. Recently, one school board in Hesperia, California, reduced Mello-Roos fees by 75 percent due to resident protests.
At the Sweetwater forum, residents from the Mello-Roos districts asked why the district increased their fees this year by 2 percent (increase is optional) and what the money is being spent on.
Residents stressed that Chula Vista's east-side schools are aging and the Mello-Roos taxes need to be reinvested in them. Residents also expressed concern that the money they have already paid will be used for future facilities rather than for the needs of existing schools. The district envisions, among other things, a $129-million high school.
Sweetwater's chief financial officer, Rick Knott, was asked in a November 13 email exchange: "Will the money already accumulated in the Mello-Ross funds be used toward the new high school or future facilities?"
Knott's reply was ambiguous: "Short answer is that some will likely be used in the way. As was mentioned at the meeting on Thursday, the district is starting the update of its Master Plan for Facilities. In that process we'll include the best information we have at this time for the need for a new high school or other facilities, along with the needs of the entire district related to facilities."
Although, Sweetwater provided a panel of experts, many residents felt they went home without specific answers.
Parent Maty Adato said she still has no understanding of why the district needed to increase the taxes and believes the district could refund excess Mello-Roos taxes but “prefers to have a huge accessible reserve to borrow from.”
(The district borrows from Mello-Roos funds and, as deferred state funding becomes available, the district repays the account with interest.)
A fiery moment in the meeting occurred when recently reelected Sweetwater boardmember Bertha Lopez took the microphone and challenged Brand for bringing forward the iPad proposition without a thoughtful implementation plan. The district's $4.3 million purchase of iPads was funded in part by Mello-Roos taxes.
Although the meeting was also scheduled to tackle the problem of east-side overcrowding, most of the evening was spent addressing Mello-Roos. Residents said that the teacher-pupil ratio at Eastlake High School is too high and that some students do not have desks. The problem, they believe, stems from Brand’s decision to “open boundaries,” allowing students to voluntarily transfer to the school of their choice.
Bernardo Vasquez, one of the organizers of the meeting, said in a November 13 email:
“We demand transparency, responsibility and honesty from our district leadership, and we don’t believe we are getting that from the Superintendent’s office. As far as our goals, on the Mello-Roos, in light of the district’s past practice of using money from other funds and not repaying it as required (Prop O Bond money), we would like to see some oversight by the community on how the school district spends and manages this money….
“As far as the open-boundary policy change, we would like to see a more planned and thoughtful approach…that considers impacts to student services, class sizes, traffic, transportation, and overcrowding.”