LAFAYETTE -- Residents in the Acalanes Union High School District have filed official complaints in Contra Costa County Superior Court over a recent decision by the school board to issue $15 million in construction bonds, claiming it could mean further tax increases from a measure passed with the promise it would not raise taxes.
In 2008, voters in the district -- which includes Acalanes, Campolindo, Las Lomas and Miramonte high schools -- approved Measure E, calling for a $93 million school construction bond. Despite the falling economy that year, voters were told on the ballot summary that passing the bond would not mean higher taxes, just extending into 2042 the rate they were paying from a measure passed in 2002. At the time, the district estimated the rate would stay about $30 for every $100,000 of a property's assessed value, and would not exceed $35.58.
In its early projections the district calculated property values would grow 5.75 percent annually. Now, because of the downturn in housing values, the tax rate has already surpassed the promised limit. According to court documents filed by the district in July, the rate is $40.73 per $100,000, and could go as high as $48.48.
Following complaints and concern at a June board meeting that approving a $15 million bond issuance could mean higher taxes, and thus inconsistency with Measure E ballot language, the district took the unusual step of filing a suit against all district residents to notify them of the pending increase.
"The purpose of the complaint was to let the citizens know that on the official statement, the 75 words on the ballot, we had said that we would not raise taxes," said Christopher Learned, associate superintendent of business services for the Acalanes school district. But Learned said that inside the ballot, under the full description of the bond, it did say that although $35.58 was the stated goal, things could change that would cause it to go higher than that amount.
Clifford Horner, a lawyer who runs a commercial real estate law firm in Walnut Creek, was one of at least eight people who filed responses to the district's suit. He said he filed his cross-complaint against the district because he thinks the taxation issue should go back to the voters.
"I don't like the fact that the Acalanes Union High School District promised the voters it wouldn't go above a specific rate and they already have, and now want to issue more bonds," Horner said. The district, he said, is "spending our money to sue us."
Horner's remarks echoed those of other residents who sent letters to the court in advance of an Aug. 18 deadline to respond to the district's suit. "This will mean that our taxes will increase by hundreds of dollars each year!" David and Nyla Irvin of Lafayette wrote. "The information given to voters was wrong. It was a lie and must not stand."
Learned said the district was transparent in the full text of the ballot and was relying on projections that could not have anticipated the housing crisis.
"It looks like it may drop below $35 next year," he said of the tax rate. "If you take the lengths of the bonds on average it's always below $35.58. If you look at payoff over 20 years it drops below that amount."
Learned also noted that because of good fiscal management, the district came in $10 million under the $93 million approved and won't need to issue bonds for the full $25 million left.
A case management conference to discuss the status of the suits and determine how to proceed is set for Nov. 26. Learned said the school board can still move ahead with the $15 million bond issuance without seeking validation from voters. He said that following a closed session meeting with legal counsel last week the board is evaluating what to do next. Horner, however, maintained that his countersuit ensures that even if the district drops its validation suit it will still have to answer his counter claim. An attorney for the district said that he would not comment on pending litigation.
Jennifer Baires covers Orinda, Lafayette and Moraga. Contact her at 925-943-8378. Follow her at twitter.com/jenniferbaires.