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L.A. Mulls Asking for Vote on $2.4 Billion Bond Issue

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Los Angeles school officials are hoping to reverse years of deterioration in their aging buildings with an unprecedented $2.4 billion bond issue.

If passed by voters this fall, experts believe it would be the largest bond issue by a school system in the nation, surpassing the Detroit schools' $1.5 billion issue in 1994.

Leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District say they have little choice but to go for broke, after years of putting off pressing facilities needs in the nation's second-largest district.

"There's no bailout coming. There's no windfall from the state," said Mark Slavkin, the president of the school board. "We have no choice but to go to our local voters."

The board is expected to decide this month whether to seek voter approval in November to borrow the money, which would pay for everything from building new schools to making old ones more resistant to earthquakes.

California voters approved $3 billion in bonds for education facilities in March, including $2 billion for K-12 schools around the state. But Los Angeles is expected to receive only a small portion of those funds.

Renovation Top Priority

Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson outlined a plan in December for how the 649,000-student district would spend the proceeds of the bond issue.

Their original plan assumed a $3 billion bond issue would be needed. It called for allocating $1.4 billion to modernizing the district's 10,000 buildings and $561 million more to deferred maintenance.

Among other purposes, it would devote:

  • $307 million to new construction that would accommodate 13,500 students;
  • $489 million to technology;
  • $172 million to air-conditioning; and
  • $163 million to make buildings more resistant to earthquakes.

Although officials have been discussing a $3 billion bond issue for months, the proposal was recently scaled back with the hope that the rest of the money could be obtained from the state, Mr. Slavkin said.

He and others argue that the bond package is their best hope for getting more money from Sacramento because state officials favor districts that can supply local matching funds.

Mr. Slavkin said the school board would not settle on an exact amount of the bond issue until deciding whether to place it on the November ballot. That vote was slated for June 17.

Poll Finds Support

Most of the seven-member board is expected to support the proposal, but board member David Tokofsky has raised a dissenting voice.

Mr. Tokofsky, who faults district administrators for failing to pry loose more facilities aid from the state, said he might support the bond issue only if the board agrees to certain conditions.

They include grouping the bonds on the ballot with those of other county and city agencies and creating an independent panel of community members and business leaders to oversee how the money is spent. He said both steps would help counter voters' negative opinions of the district.

"Voters have clear accountability fears," Mr. Tokofsky said. "If we're going to do a local bond, we have to do it to win."

The district has not passed a bond issue for more than 20 years. But supporters were heartened by a recent poll commissioned by the district showing that 73 percent of likely voters would definitely or probably approve a $3 billion school-construction bond issue.

Support for the idea slipped among poll respondents, though, when details were discussed, including the proposal's impact on property taxes. Two-thirds of those voting would have to favor the bond issue for it to pass.

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