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Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Californians Reject District-Spending Measure

Californians Reject District-Spending Measure

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Fortune smiled on California school district administrators last week as voters approved millions of dollars worth of local bond measures while rejecting a proposed statewide restriction on districts' administrative spending.

In a dramatic turn of public opinion, Californians defeated a ballot measure that would have capped administrative spending by the state's nearly 1,000 districts at 5 percent of their total budgets and required that the other 95 percent go to classroom expenses, such as teachers' salaries and school supplies.

Observers credited a last-minute, highly targeted advertising blitz with helping to shift the tide on the so-called 95/5 measure. As recently as April, polls found that 51 percent of likely voters favored the measure, while 31 percent were opposed to it. But with all the votes counted, the measure failed 54.5 percent to 45.5 percent.

In local races, meanwhile, voters in this state of booming K-12 enrollments looked more favorably at school bond proposals, passing 22 of 32 school construction measures on local ballots.

"This is as good as it gets," said Herbert M. Cole Jr., the superintendent of the 34,000-student West Contra Costa schools near Oakland. In an interview last week, Mr. Cole sounded elated over the 76 percent yes vote for a $40 million bond in his district. It was a resounding victory, even in a state that requires two-thirds voter approval for school bonds.

The June 2 primary election was a particularly meaningful one for schools. It also featured a slate of candidates for governor and other statewide elected offices, including state schools chief, a successful ballot measure to end bilingual education, and a failed effort to curb union political spending that held major implications for the state's strong teachers' unions. ("Unions Hail Save of Payroll Deductions for Politics," and "The Money Flowed, But Only Some Campaigns Cashed In," in This Week's News.)

One of last week's most striking reversals of fortune came in the defeat of Proposition 223, or the 95/5 initiative. ("Classroom-Spending Vote Has Educators Split," May 20, 1998.)

The measure was originally crafted as a legislative bill in 1995 by United Teachers Los Angeles, whose members may be affiliated with either the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers.

Targeting Key

After the bill died, the 37,000-member union helped qualify the measure for the June 2 ballot as a way to get more money into classrooms. Early on, the measure appeared to enjoy strong support among Californians.

But a $1.7 million television advertising blitz ate away at Proposition 223's support. Anti-223 groups targeted small markets with ads that argued that small districts lacked the economies of scale to meet the proposed cap and would lose up to $175 in state aid per student as a result.

"The more time we spent educating people, the more polls changed," said Julie White, a spokeswoman for the Association of California School Administrators, which was among the leading opponents of the measure.

In the end, the strategy proved sound. For example, the measure was rejected by 70 percent of voters in relatively rural Shasta County in northern California.

But even in Los Angeles County, the UTLA's own back yard, Proposition 223 lost, 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent. "That was disappointing," said Steve Blazak, a spokesman for the union, which represents teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He said, however, that Proposition 223 supporters were spread thin by the demands of other election activity.

Mr. Blazak added that the UTLA is not giving up. It plans to revise the measure to blunt its perceived impact on small schools, he said, and then get it introduced in next year's legislative session.

"It's a fixable idea that has strong appeal with the voters," he argued. "We had 2 million people vote for it."

Generous Voters

In local elections, meanwhile, Californians passed 69 percent of the school bond measures on their ballots, up from 56 percent last November, according to School Services of California, a private finance consulting firm in Sacramento. But each of last week's bonds averaged $19 million, which was far less than the $28 million averaged by the 46 school bonds on last November's local ballots. In all, $324 million in school bonds passed last week.

Mr. Cole of the West Contra Costa schools said that his district's $40 million bond passed because "the school board did not get greedy."

The board settled on $40 million after surveys revealed that voters would not have supported a higher request. It ended up with the first school bond win in the district since 1967. Formerly the Richmond Unified School District, the system came under state control for 10 months after declaring bankruptcy in 1991.

But times have changed for the district, which is located just north of Oakland.

About $24 million of its newly approved bond funding will be used to renovate and repair schools that, on average, are more than 40 years old. The rest will go to build a new middle school in Richmond, the district's largest community.

Elsewhere, in its third attempt in four years, the Loomis Union Elementary School District, 25 miles east of Sacramento, passed a $9.3 million school bond.

The 1,800-student district will use the money to add multipurpose rooms to two existing sites and make major maintenance-related improvements to three schools.

School board member Lorene Euerle credited last week's win with the fact that there was no organized opposition to the bond.

"We had a lot of support from the community," she said. "People just kept coming out of the woodwork."

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 16,20

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