RICHMOND -- The West Contra Costa Unified School District may break its own state record if it is successful in seeking a state waiver to its bond debt limit for a fourth time.
The waiver is necessary because West Contra Costa schools have $797 million in bond debt outstanding, leaving no more bonding capacity for the $360 million in debt authorized by Measure E, passed by district voters Nov. 6. Measure E was the district's fifth successful bond measure for school construction since 2000.
The district's total bond debt could rise to more than $1 billion when the 25- to 30-year bonds authorized under Measure E are sold.
The state limits a unified school district's bond debt to 2.5 percent of the total assessed valuation of property within its boundaries, while elementary and high school districts are allowed 1.5 percent. West Contra Costa, a unified district, is proposing to lift its limit to 5 percent for 12 years for Measure E bonds.
District trustees plan to take up the matter at their Jan. 9 meeting.
The State Board of Education has allowed 37 debt limit waivers to 30 districts since 2000, said Peter Foggiato, a school finance administrator with the California Department of Education.
West Contra Costa has had three waivers over the past 12 years, the most in the state. One of the waivers, granted in 2002, was never used, said Martin Coyne, a district executive director of bond finance.
The district has the third-largest bond program in California, behind the larger Los Angeles and San Diego districts, according to district trustee Charles Ramsey, a 20-year school board veteran.
In the Bay Area, Pittsburg Unified has received two waivers, and a couple of wealthier districts, Piedmont Unified in Alameda County and Ross Elementary in Marin County, have had one each.
The waivers are only allowed after the bonds have been approved by voters, assuring that taxpayers are responsible for the principal and interest costs.
"Voter-approved bonds are paid for by the voters," Foggiato said.
Ramsey called the 2.5 percent debt limit "arbitrary." He said the West Contra Costa district was a victim of a 20 percent decline in assessed valuation between 2009 and 2011 and needs to be creative to provide students with facilities comparable with those in other districts.
"(Other districts have) 10 times as much money, how is that fair?" he said. "We have to try other options to level the playing field."
But Alicia Minyen, a member of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees, opposes the waiver because it would force district residents to pay more than is normally allowed by law.
She pointed out that the Measure E ballot language stated that the district "may" seek a waiver. But she said the district knew all along it would need to seek one and should have informed voters more clearly of that.
"I think this is really misleading," she said. "I don't understand why the Department of Education keeps approving these things. I don't want them to consider it."
Debt-ceiling increases have ranged as high as 10.2 percent of assessed valuation for the Folsom Cordova district in Sacramento County.
The education department sometimes makes exceptions for districts that are anticipating a high rate of enrollment growth because new subdivisions are being built and assessed valuation is going to be increasing, Foggiato said.
Only two waivers were issued when the real estate market was going strong and assessed valuations were rising in 2005 and 2006.
"Everyone was within the 2.5 percent then, but with the real estate market going bust, bonding capacity has shrunk in many areas," said Enrique Palacios, finance director for the Pittsburg district.
Staff writer Theresa Harrington contributed to this story.
What: West Contra Costa Unified School District board meeting
When: 6:30 p.m., Jan. 9
Where: Lovonya DeJean Middle School Multipurpose Room, 3400 Macdonald Ave., Richmond