Time for answers on Mello-Roos

Many school leaders seem to want the issue to just quietly fade, but some legitimate questions — and cynicism — remain about how Mello-Roos tax dollars have been spent to build campuses in the Village I area of Modesto.

It’s time for school officials to start getting answers and providing them to the public — aka the taxpayers — in understandable terms.

One step in that direction can be taken Wednesday. That’s when the Schools Infrastructure Financing Agency board — made up of representatives of the Modesto City, Sylvan and Stanislaus Union districts — will consider whether to retain an out-of-town law firm to review the formation of the joint powers authority that created the financing agency back in 1994.

The question is whether the joint powers agreement is in sync with a mitigation agreement signed that same year by the Modesto and Sylvan districts, the city of Modesto and the Building Industry Association, representing homebuilders.

A Los Angeles firm has indicated it will do the review for $15,000, plus $2,000 to appear at a future financing agency meeting to explain it.

School trustees, who have complained about the potential cost, should consider this an investment in credibility and proceed with the legal review.

But that’s only one of several steps that need to be taken.

Many citizens and the city of Modesto also have asked for an audit that explains how much money has been collected — from the builders of homes and apartments, from property owners paying annual Mello-Roos taxes and from other sources, including the state.

As it stands today, the bonds that were sold to pay up front for the multiple school projects won’t be paid off until 2037. The money has helped build several Sylvan campuses and Enochs High School. It is perfectly understandable that property owners in Village I want to know how many more years they’ll be paying the special Mello-Roos taxes, which currently average about $400 per house, on top of their regular property taxes.

No one has suggested that school officials spent the money on anything other than school buildings. But it does appear that the districts spent extravagantly, especially when viewed through the lens of today’s tough economy.

Wednesday’s agenda includes an audit for 2009-10 that includes some of the information citizens have been asking for.

Even though it only covers one year, we encourage citizens who have raised questions at recent meetings to attend Wednesday; they may get more answers.

Finally, we want to see school officials acknowledge the missteps that resulted in the current controversy and then begin working more closely with the city in discussing these issues.

For instance, the Modesto school board recently voted to hold onto its plans to build a pool at Enochs High, which will be paid for out of the Mello-Roos taxes. The city, meanwhile, has plans for an aquatics center at its future Mary Grogan Community Park, which is to be located adjacent to Enochs High. We sure hope they won’t both be building pools.

Modesto school board members are preparing to put a parcel tax before voters to help pay for operating expenses. Although it would not affect Village I residents, the lingering questions about how effectively the district is overseeing funds will undermine support from voters in the Modesto elementary district.

And simply arguing that the money is needed “for the kids” is not enough. Citizens are willing to support their schools, but not lavishly, and they deserve a full and understandable accounting of where their tax dollars go.

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