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Calif. District Seeks First School Bond in 31 Years

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The last few years haven't been easy for the West Contra Costa County schools.

The 32,000-student district east of Oakland, Calif., formerly known as the Richmond public schools, was once one of the state's most financially troubled--in such dire straits that it declared bankruptcy in 1991 and changed its name. Since then, students and educators have had to get by on a shoestring as the district scraped and scrimped, trying to restore its credit by dutifully making payments on a $70 million debt.

Now, administrators in the district hope to turn the corner with a $40 million bond issue to repair leaky roofs, replace heating systems, resurface asphalt playgrounds, and build a new middle school. If voters approve the bond measure in June, it would be the district's first since 1967.

The pitch comes as many California districts are floating similar measures in efforts to spruce up neglected schools, handle soaring enrollment, and meet the state's ambitious effort to reduce class sizes in the early grades.

Gov. Pete Wilson and his allies in the legislature are also pushing for a massive school construction measure to be put on the June ballot. The plan would raise $8 billion over six years.

'Need Is Evident'

In many ways, West Contra Costa County's upcoming vote in June is more than just a bid for dollars: The vote will be a referendum on the district's ability to manage its finances.

To make regular payments on its debt, the system has operated on a bare-bones budget of $170 million a year, delaying maintenance projects, gutting athletics programs, and curtailing many services.

The austerity measures have brought complaints. A group of parents sued the district in 1995 over its failure to provide adequate transportation for students who had been routed to remote schools. ("Troubled District Giving Parents a Tough Choice," Jan. 11, 1995.)

A state judge ultimately ruled, however, that the district was under no constitutional obligation to provide the transportation.

So far, no organized opposition to the current school construction plan has surfaced. And school board members say that with 37 of the district's 49 schools in poor condition and more than 40 years old, the time is right to ask the public for help.

"The facilities need is evident," said board member Glen Price. "Besides, the general mood out there is the district has grabbed itself by its bootstraps and turned itself around.''

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