More than 200 school districts across California are taking a second look at the high price of the debt they’ve taken on using risky financial arrangements. Collectively, the districts have borrowed billions in loans that defer payments for years — leaving many districts owing far more than they borrowed.
In 2010, officials at the West Contra Costa School District, just east of San Francisco, were in a bind. The district needed $2.5 million to help secure a federally subsidized $25 million loan to build a badly needed elementary school.
Charles Ramsey, president of the school board, says he needed that $2.5 million upfront, but the district didn’t have it.
Why would you leave $25 million on the table? You would never leave $25 million on the table.
– Charles Ramsey, school board president, West Contra Costa School District
“We’d be foolish not to take advantage of getting $25 million” when the district had to spend just $2.5 million to get it, Ramsey says. “The only way we could do it was with a [capital appreciation bond].”
Those bonds, known as CABs, are unlike typical bonds, where a school district is required to make immediate and regular payments. Instead, CABs allow districts to defer payments well into the future — by which time lots of interest has accrued.
In the West Contra Costa Schools’ case, that $2.5 million bond will cost the district a whopping $34 million to repay.