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Bond Rating Firm Ups Hart District Outlook to ‘Positive’

Leon Worden, SCV News

Fitch Ratings of San Francisco has revised its outlook for the Hart School District’s bond portfolio upward to “positive” from “stable.”

It reaffirmed its previous AA- rating for the general obligation bonds issued under Measure V (2001) and Measure SA (2008).

Fitch based the rosier outlook on the Hart District’s “years of financial outperformance, resulting in four consecutive years of general fund operating surpluses and a solid unrestricted general fund balance.”

It noted that Santa Clarita, and thus the school district, benefit from its location within the Los Angeles employment market, and that “the local economy enjoys materially stronger income and unemployment levels than the state and the nation, and population growth historically has been rapid.”

That’s a good thing for the district’s ability to repay the bonds, because they’re “secured by an unlimited property tax levied on all taxable properties within the district,” Fitch said.

The firm acknowledged that falling home prices over three of the last four years have adversely impacted the area’s property valuations, but “home values in 2012 have risen modestly, and developer fees are well above trough levels of fiscal 2009.”

“It remains to be seen,” Fitch said, whether this is the “beginning of a longer-term recovery.”

It said potential threats to the district’s financial position include “a challenged state funding environment despite recent passage of Proposition 30, four years of enrollment losses, a material degree of charter school competition, and participation in the state-run CalSTRS pension plan, which has a low funded ratio.”

Fitch said the district has improved its debt profile, having refinanced its general obligation bond anticipation notes within the promised tax rates.

If the district were looking for a ratings upgrade, Fitch said the district would have to “complete its sizable capital improvement plan without material deterioration of its debt profile.”

In its report Tuesday, Fitch gave the following commentary on the Hart School District’s finances and pension costs:

“The district’s financial operations have performed well over the past several years, but are moderately vulnerable to various pressures moving forward. Management prudently enacted significant expenditure reductions early in the downturn, thus allowing the district to grow its unrestricted general fund balance in each year from fiscal 2008 to 2012 (fiscal 2012 results are estimated and unaudited). Estimated fiscal 2012 results show break-even operations, with total and unrestricted fund balances at high levels of $42 million (24.2 percent of expenditures and transfers out) and $39.3 million (22.7 percent), respectively.

“General fund operations in fiscal 2013 are budgeted for a large $12.3 million operating deficit, which would lower the unrestricted fund balance to a still-sound $26.5 million (14.5 percent). This reduced level of financial cushion would continue to be consistent with the current rating level. However, there could be downward rating pressure if, in future years, funding levels remain weak and the district does not initiate sufficient expenditure reductions to regain structural balance, resulting in an inadequate financial cushion. Fitch does not anticipate this scenario based on the district’s history of strong financial management, outperformance of budgetary expectations, and maintenance of high fund balances.

“In November voters approved Proposition 30, a tax hike measure that prevented automatic state funding reductions. The passage of Proposition 30 will not result in additional revenues compared to budget, as the budget already assumed trigger cuts would not be enacted. However, Fitch believes offsetting elements of budgetary conservatism will result in budgetary out-performance in fiscal 2013.

OPERATIONAL PRESSURES MITIGATED BY STRONG MANAGEMENT PRACTICES

“The $12.3 million budgeted fund balance deficit in fiscal 2013 largely stems from the expiration of federal stimulus funding, step and column wage adjustments, the addition of nine positions, and increased benefit costs. Multi-year projections indicate similar operational deficits in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, though prior year projections have been similarly negative while actual financial performance has been positive.

“These operational pressures are mitigated by strong management practices. The district has a considerable amount of legal expenditure flexibility in addition to the district’s history of conservative budgeting and positive operating results. Management has identified a list of potential cost reductions totaling $20.6 million (12% of fiscal 2012 revenues), should cost-cutting be necessitated in future years.

DEBT PROFILE IMPROVED, ADEQUATE OVERALL

“The district’s debt profile improved as the result of refunding a $41.5 million BAN with GOs that mature within 25 years and are funded at a tax rate below the politically promised $35 per $100,000 AV limit. However, staying under the tax rate promised will require 4 percent - 5 percent average annual AV growth over the long term, which Fitch views as aggressive. Although this rate of increase is consistent with the area’s long-term historical averages, recent performance has been notably weaker and AV gains tend to diminish as a community becomes increasingly built out.

“Tax rates will adjust to whatever level is necessary to pay GO debt service, however, Fitch would view negatively an increase of the rate to above the promised ceiling as it may suppress voters’ appetite for future bond authorizations.

“Direct and overlapping debt levels are low to moderate at $3,318 per capita (2.6 percent of AV), but amortization is slower than average at 39.3% over 10 years. The district has a sizable capital improvement plan, however, that likely will push debt to moderate levels, and could result in even slower amortization. The district is looking to modernize three schools, build a new high school, and construct two new auditoriums. To fund these costs, the district expects to issue $175 million over the next two years under separate issuances. These issuances are expected to exhaust the district’s only two GO authorizations, Measures C and D.

OPEB, PENSION COSTS CURRENTLY MANAGEABLE BUT LIKELY TO RISE

“The district’s other post-employment benefit (OPEB) costs currently are manageable, but are likely to rise moving forward as the district funds OPEB on a pay-as-you-go basis. The unfunded liability currently is small at $66 million, or just 0.2 percent of AV.

“As with all California school districts, the district participates in the state-run CalSTRS pension plan for its teachers. Although the district is paying 100 percent of its required rate, in fiscal 2011 system contributions were equal to just 46.7 percent of the actuarially required rate. Contribution rates are set by statute and they have not been increased to reflect the weak investment return environment over the past several years. As a result, the system’s Fitch-adjusted funded ratio has fallen to a low 65.7 percent and future contribution rates likely will need to rise substantially from current levels. It is unclear which stakeholders would face increased contribution rates, and how such increases would be implemented, but Fitch believes districts would be likely to bear at least part of the burden.”