As voters around the state decide on more than two dozen local school bond measures tomorrow, the campaigns promoting many of them are funded largely by businesses that stand to benefit financially.
On local ballots from San Diego to Sonoma County, 28 school bond measures would authorize a combined $2.1 billion in debt to fund school construction, repairs and improvements, according to Ballotpedia, which tracks ballot measures. Twelve of the measures affect schools in the Bay Area, from Antioch to Mountain View and Sebastopol.
Bond campaigns draw small contributions from community members and school officials, but the larger donations often come from companies that work for the school districts: architects, construction companies, and the financial and law firms hired to work on selling the bonds. By law, school districts can't spend public money to support bond measures, leaving the campaign committees reliant on donations from contractors.
A California Watch investigation found that in the last five years, almost every time an underwriting company gave money to a successful school bond campaign, that firm was hired to sell the bonds to investors for a profit. Critics, including some county treasurers, call the practice "pay to play," arguing that the contributions affect the school districts' business decisions. But school officials and underwriters counter that the money has no influence, pointing out that the companies usually are hired before they donate.