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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Californians To Vote on Huge Education Bond

Californians To Vote on Huge Education Bond

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After several failed attempts at placing a school construction bond on recent state ballots, California lawmakers have stepped up and passed legislation for an unprecedented $9.2 billion bond.

Politicians, including Gov. Pete Wilson, found it almost impossible to walk away from the proposal, which comes as the state faces an estimated $40 billion in school facility needs.

Voters will decide the bond's fate when they go to the polls Nov. 3.

The package also includes policies to lower school construction costs and restrict fees that districts charge real estate developers, both of which were crucial to winning bipartisan support for placing the bond question before the public.

"The need for this bond is very real," Mr. Wilson, a Republican, said in signing the bill Aug. 27. "In every corner of the state, kids are going to school in crowded, crumbling buildings."

Democratic Assembly Speaker Antonio R. Villaraigosa called the bond "the crown jewel for the 1998 California legislature."

The school bond, which would be the largest in the nation's history, would send $6.7 billion over four years to K-12 schools and $2.5 billion to higher education. School districts would receive $2.9 billion for new schools, $2.1 billion for modernization, $1 billion for ''hardship'' cases where local matching funds can't be raised, and $700 million for costs related to reducing class sizes.

"This won't erase the facilities crisis we're facing," said Bob Blattner, the director of legislative services for School Services of California, a school finance lobbying firm in Sacramento. "But it will go a substantial way toward easing the pinch."

State Standards

The bond plan attempts to spread construction costs more evenly among local communities, real estate developers, and the state, while holding down costs overall.

With some exceptions, the plan would require districts to come up with 50 percent in matching funds for new schools and 20 percent matches for modernization projects.

To lower costs, the state also would draft new standards for eligible construction costs and base its payments on the standards rather than local districts' projections.

In addition, the new plan would cap the fees that districts can demand from developers at $1.93 per square foot of a project. Districts that met certain criteria could ask for more. Currently, districts can close the gap between state aid and the costs for new schools by demanding fees from developers based on their projects' anticipated impact on schools.

The restriction on fees is one reason the California School Boards Association is opposing the bond, although it will not campaign against it. The group also faulted the plan for failing to allow passage of local school bonds by majority vote instead of the current two-thirds vote in their favor.

"The size of the bond was the club that beat everyone in line," said Fred Yaeger, a consultant to the state education department's facility division. "But some don't like it because of its ties to state standards and because it takes away some local authority to make developers pay."

Raised Hopes

A combination of factors seems to be working in the bond's favor.

First, education is on the minds of California voters. It has been the dominant issue in the legislature this year and figures to be a marquee issue in the race this fall to succeed Gov. Wilson. And, in March 1996, the last time Californians voted on a school construction bond, they passed it 62 percent to 38 percent.

California is also entering the third year of a massive effort to reduce classroom sizes in grades K-3. This year, state lawmakers added a class-size-reduction plan for 9th graders. The efforts, though popular, are putting tremendous pressure on schools to add new classrooms.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the state economy is booming.

"That's probably the single biggest predictor of a bond's success," said Mr. Blattner, whose firm tracks school construction bonds. "I think the prognosis for passage is good."

School officials in the Elk Grove Unified School District are among those who hope Mr. Blattner is right.

The 42,000-student Elk Grove system 10 miles south of Sacramento has seen its enrollment more than double from about 18,000 in 1987 to 40,000 today. Enrollment is expected to double again by 2010. To keep pace, the district hopes to build 34 schools in a little more than a decade--something that would be much easier with the $60 million it stands to receive if the bond passes.

"Our district appreciates the support of the governor and the legislator on this badly needed bond package," Elk Grove Superintendent David W. Gordon said during the bill-signing ceremony at one of his schools. "We hope that the education community pulls together to make sure we get this passed."

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Pages 26,32

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