Plan to get around bond terms on shaky legal ground

A scheme by San Mateo County’s largest high school district to sidestep flaws in the fine print of its $300 million bond appears to be illegal, according to the county’s legal advisers.

San Mateo Union High School District leaders recently announced that they’d found problems with the language of the Measure M bond, which was passed by voters in 2006 to help the school district renovateaging facilities and build new classrooms.

The measure specifically authorized the district to issue 25-year bonds, to be paid back with higher property taxes, explained district Superintendent David Miller. However, the district has since realized that 25-year bonds won’t produce enough cash to fund all $300 million authorized by the bonds.

To solve this problem, district leaders want to issue longer-term bonds, perhaps as long as 40 years, which would bring in enough cash to fund all the projects, but would take taxpayers that much longer to pay off.

The district now faces a dilemma: how to legally bypass the 25-year limit.

District leaders say the plan is both legal and ethical and that they will be moving forward with their plans.

The district’s legal counsel, Sean Absher, says the district has the option of going back to the voters and having the 40-year bonds approved. But another — much less expensive — option is to ask the county supervisors to “validate” the change, or to authorize the district to issue the longer bonds.

But this option may have shaky legal standing, said Supervisor Jerry Hill, whose district includes several of the high schools. He said the county’s legal counsel, in her preliminary analysis, advised that the supervisors would not have the legal authority to sidestep voters in this way.

Supervisor Mark Church said he would be “hard pressed” to approve terms “not substantially consistent with what voters understood they were passing.”

County tax collector Lee Buffington, who serves as an advocate for taxpayers, said he thinks the best option for the district is to go back to the voters and have them approve an advisory measure — an action that district officials said could cost some $400,000 in a time when state budget cuts are already cutting into their coffers.

Bond attorney Absher said the district will try to hammer out the legal issues with the supervisors. Meanwhile, the district is still struggling to figure out how it can cut through the legal mess and renovate its decades-old schools.

“At the end of the day, we just want state of the art facilities for our kids,” said Liz McManus, the district’s associate superintendent.

kworth@examiner.com

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