Confronting the Challenges of Insolvencies

eBlog, 03/17/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the suit filed by the Detroit Public Schools District seeking to prevent the closure of any additional schools in the city; then we snow shovel our way through the high drifts in Cambridge, Massachusetts to explore its creative issuance of mini municipal bonds, before racing to the warmth of Puerto Rico to observe the legal challenge between different kinds of municipal bondholders against Puerto Rico.

Schools of Hard Fiscal Knocks. In response to a threat by the Michigan School Reform Office (SRO) to target up to 16 Detroit public schools for closure in the newly created Detroit Public School District, created in the wake of the old system’s physical and fiscal insolvencies: to move as many as 7,700 students—permitting them to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts; the Detroit Public Schools Community District is seeking to make a preemptive strike against said state plans to shutter some of its schools: the district board has voted to sue the state’s School Reform Office (SSRO) over the threat of school closures in the newly state-created district, suing to prevent the State of Michigan from closing any of its struggling schools, after the Board of Education, in the wake of a five-hour meeting, voted unanimously to file suit against the state School Reform Office, the State of Michigan, and Michigan School Reform Officer Natasha Baker. Detroit School Board Vice President Sonya Mays noted: “The action preserves the full range of our options.” The vote appeared to be in response to the state office’s identification last January of 38 schools statewide for potential closure, because they have ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years: more than two-thirds of those public schools were in Detroit: 16 in the Detroit district, 8 in the Education Achievement Authority, and one charter school. However, a Moody’s report last month said that the student loss would have been somewhat offset by the school district’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure

The suit was filed even though the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) had offered a proposal to school districts with schools on that closure list under which, if said districts reached agreement with the state agency on a plan to turn the schools around, then the school reform office would hold off on closure decisions. Detroit Public Schools Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather not only had said the district is interested in entering into such an agreement with the MDE, but also is planning to schedule a meeting soon—even as, notwithstanding, the board remains intent on moving forward with the lawsuit. It is unclear how much of the District’s resources will be siphoned out of the city’s ailing physically and educationally system’s budget to finance the litigation. Board President Iris Taylor stated: “We want to make it clear that filing suit is not a rejection of MDE’s offer to enter into a partnership agreement…It is simply the Board and the district ensuring that all options are available to us as we work through these challenges.” Ms. Taylor told the Detroit News that the board believes the school reform office actions were unlawful, because the board believes legislation approved last June which provided a financial rescue to the Detroit Public Schools—and which created the Detroit Public School District—provided the new district a clean slate: “Our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte last summer issued an opinion noting that if the Michigan Legislature had intended to give the district a three-year reprieve, the legislature would have clearly stated such an intent, noting that it had not.

In a city seeking to be a beacon to young families with children as critical towards re-growing its tax base, the suit seeks to bar the state from taking any additional steps to close any DPSDC schools until the court decides whether or not the SSRO has authority to close schools and whether the action taken to create the SSRO and the legislation itself is constitutional. That is, it is a suit regarding governance power and authority—and one in relation to which DPSCD Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather stated: “Closing schools creates a hardship for students in numerous areas including transportation, safety, and the provision of wrap around services…As a new district, we are virtually debt free, with a locally elected board, and we deserve the right to build on this foundation and work with our parents, educators, administrators, and the entire community to improve outcomes for all of our children.”

The lawsuit was filed, however, even as the Michigan Department of Education had offered the district and all others impacted by the threat of school closures a proposal under which duly elected school boards and district leadership would remain in full control of their schools, the curriculum, and their districts—an offer which Board President Taylor said the School Board was not necessarily rejecting, but rather in an effort to ensure “all options are available to us as we work through these challenges,” adding: “We appreciate Governor Snyder for hearing our concerns and taking action; however, we continue to believe that SSRO’s actions were unlawful. Among other things, we believe the legislation that created DPSCD in 2016 gave us a clean slate, which means, under the law, our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” (Michigan’s legislation enacted in 2009 provides authority for the state to close schools ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years.) This year, however, was the first time the SSRO has announced potential closures of schools under the state legislation—closures which carry a potential cost of foregone state aid from the $617 million state bailout of the fiscally and physically insolvent Detroit Public Schools district, under a state statute to overhaul the old Detroit Public Schools system. The newly created district operates schools and is scheduled to receive future state aid payments under the restructuring backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers. The SSRO threat has targeted up to 16 schools: the Detroit public school system would be at risk of the loss of not just 7,700 students, but also the state revenues that those students would have brought. Under the state proposal, students in the district could opt to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts. Moody’s, last month, had reported that any such student loss would have been somewhat offset by DPSCD’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure. The state-run Education Achievement Authority is scheduled to close in July.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood Municipal Bonds? Cambridge, Mass., a municipality of just over 107,000 across the Charles River from Boston, has succeeded in raising some $2 million through a sale of community-sourced general obligation minibonds, which the city’s underwriter, aptly named Neighborly, notes could reshape the municipal marketplace. The firm’s head of finance, James McIntyre, notes: “Our intention is to democratize access to municipal bonds.” Here the city will use the proceeds to fund capital projects such as school building renovations, and street and sidewalk improvements. The municipal bonds themselves were offered only to city residents, even though neither my daughter nor her husband, residents, seemed to be aware: individual orders are limited to $20,000, and lowered to a minimum investment amount to $1,000 from the customary $5,000. The opening for orders began selling at the close of business last month, closing last week: the Series A minibonds bonds pay a tax-exempt interest rate of 1.6% and will mature in five years. The firm notes that more than 240 individuals invested in the minibonds—municipal bonds to which Fitch Ratings, S&P Global Ratings, and Moody’s Investors Service assigned AAA ratings, with Cambridge City Manager Louie DePasquale noting: “This will not only engage residents, but we will make them a financial partner in our infrastructure investments.” Indeed, the city has helped via the distribution of “invest in Cambridge” mass-transit posters, a video, and a huge sign in front of City Hall. According to Neighborly founder Jase Wilson, “The most exciting thing about the Cambridge minibond issue is that it’s not a new idea at all…in fact the way our nation’s communities used to borrow money to build public projects.” Indeed, it was just 27 years ago that Denver issued its first minibonds; three years ago the Mile High City generated $12 million through a crowdfunding in $500 increments, as part of a $550 million transaction to finance city road improvements, leading Elizabeth FU of GFOA to note: “The minibonds definitely met Denver’s goal of helping residents invest in the community, so the project was well worth the additional resources and effort…Of course, this tool isn’t for everyone,” she added, noting some municipalities might experience trouble with the additional workload, the level of resources needed for administration, or the additional cost. Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, the municiplity also sold $56.5 million in general obligation municipal purpose loan of 2017 Series B bonds competitively on March 1. Morgan Stanley submitted the winning bid with a true interest cost of 2.303%. Proceeds from that sale will benefit sewer and stormwater, energy efficiency and street repair citywide, including Cambridge Common and Harvard Square. Neighborly’s director of business development, Pitichoke Chulapamornsri, said the firm structures municipal bond financings to connect a city’s capital plan with its residents—or, as he put it: “We are excited to help redefine the ‘public’ in public finance….Communities that are innovative and engaged are usually college towns: They are the ones with the most participation.”

Stay or Not? Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennifer González Colón reports that an extension the stay on litigation of the PROMESA debt litigation stay is unlikely, notwithstanding Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed extension as incorporated in his proposed fiscal plan the Governor said he was seeking, with Del. González Colón (D-P.R.), Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative Congress noting there simply was insufficient time for Congress to act to amend PROMESA before the end of the stay. (PROMESA set the stay on debt-related suits against the Commonwealth on Feb. 15th, but allowed the PROMESA Oversight Board the option of moving it to May 1, which it did at the end of January.) Gov. Rosselló, in his plan, has argued that it was reasonable to ask for an extension, because his predecessor failed to use his time in office after PROMESA’s enactment to seek a negotiated debt restructuring: he said the extension would allow his administration time to release FY2015 and 2016 financial information, noting he would prefer reaching a negotiated agreement with creditors, rather than having a court impose restructuring terms. (Title VI of PROMESA allows the Oversight Board to reach negotiated solutions with municipal bondholders while the stay is in effect.) Indeed, in his plan he submitted at the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló said the Board probably will start PROMESA Title III’s court-supervised bankruptcy process before the stay elapses. Unsurprisingly, groups representing holders of both general obligation and Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) senior bonds have said they are opposed to extending the litigation stay: José F. Rodríguez, an individual investor, as well as several investment firms, such as Decagon Holdings, GoldenTree Asset Management, and Whitebox Advisors—who are the main bondholders of the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA)—will appeal U.S. District Court Judge Francisco A. Besosa’s ruling in favor of several general obligation bondholders, spearheaded by the Lex Claims and Jacana Holdings funds.  Mr. Rodríguez’s intentions—and those of several investments funds—to appeal the ruling at the First Circuit Court of Appeals was disclosed on Monday, making this the sole lawsuit against the U.S. territory which is currently active, after the approval of PROMESA last year, and in the midst of the automatic stay on litigations decreed by the federal statute. The plaintiffs are holding nearly $2 billion in COFINA senior notes.

According to the court’s notice, Mr. Rodríguez and the funds led by Decagon will go to the federal court to request revocation of Judge Besosa’s ruling: the Judge had agreed to hear Lex’s case, notwithstanding the request made by the main COFINA bondholders, Puerto Rico, and the PROMESA Oversight Board to apply the automatic stay on litigation. Last month, Judge Besosa—who had previously ordered Puerto Rico not to lose any time in commencing negotiations with its creditors—concluded that Lex’s lawsuit should be examined on its merits, with this judicial effort coming, even as the territory’s general obligation bond holders have asked Judge Besosa to declare the Emergency Moratorium Act unconstitutional, arguing that the enactment of the statute prompted Puerto Rico to default on its general obligation bonds other debt obligations. GO bondholders have also asked Judge Besosa to ban the government from paying COFINA bondholders—who are essentially the only ones who continue receiving payments for the amount they are owed, and to declare COFINA a null structure, since it served to divert the funds which it believes belong to the central Government. In his verdict, Judge Besosa denied the Government’s petition to halt the case and authorized the PROMESA Oversight Board to intervene in the lawsuit; however, he rejected the request made by COFINA’s primary bondholders to be part of the lawsuit to determine if the stay on litigations is applicable or not. In the wake of his decision, the Oversight Board filed a motion to appeal the decision—a request to which Puerto Rico has yet to intervene—notwithstanding apprehensions that the Lex Claims litigation could result in certain of the territory’s assets being frozen, something which would be likely were Judge Besosa to determine that the Moratorium Act is unconstitutional. According to the case file at the Court of Appeals, the Oversight Board has until March 24th to act.  

COFINA Under Attack. Likewise, the appeal made by the group of COFINA’s primary bondholders in the Lex Claims case arrives at a time when the GO bondholders have launched a media campaign asking for the elimination of the public corporation that issues debt payable with the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax (IVU, by its Spanish acronym). Last week, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez backed COFINA and pointed out that the entity was lawfully created with the endorsement of both main political parties. However, in the fiscal plan prepared by Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration and certified by the OB on Monday, the IVU funds that are sent every year to COFINA appear as part of the revenues the Government would use to pay for public services. In that sense, Rosselló Nevares’s plan is an echo of what former Governor Alejandro García Padilla did, which was to combine all revenues that, according to the bond contracts, should have been reserved for the repayment of the debt. According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s plan, one of the revenues would be what is allocated to the General Fund—10.5% of the IVU—, but the plan also adds an allocation identified as “Additional IVU”. In this allocation, which is referred to COFINA, the IVU allotments to foster the film industry and for the Municipality Financing Corporation add up to $850 million this fiscal year. The amount increases to $906 million in FY 2019, and continues to increase until it reaches $9.936 billion in 10 years.