California Voters Weigh Making Facilities Bonds Easier To Pass
Room 4 at Madison Middle School is more a commodity than a classroom. As the only available open space in a crowded, year-round school made up of nothing but portable classrooms, Room 4 is always in demand. It acts as a gym for physical education classes when it rains and a storage facility for state tests during exam season. It is a meeting place for teachers, a headquarters for auditors, and a base for students who take classes during school holidays.
It is also a symbol of the wide-scale space crunch that is exasperating parents and school officials throughout the 26,000-student Vista Unified School District.
To keep pace with an expanding student population, school officials in this politically conservative, middle-class district north of San Diego have tried to pass school construction bonds three times in the past decade. Each time, more than 60 percent of voters have said yes. But each time, the bonds ultimately failed because of a clause in the state constitution that requires school bonds to garner a two-thirds majority in order to pass.
On March 7, California voters will decide whether that 121-year-old clause has had its day. Proposition 26, on the ballot statewide, would lower the percent of votes required to pass school bonds to a simple majority. To many Vista parents and educators, passage of the measure would at long last get rid of a state requirement that they say has deprived schoolchildren of sound facilities and simultaneously depressed local property values.
"We have one-third of the population effectively vetoing the will of the rest of the community," said Tom Conry, a Vista middle school teacher and a member of the board of directors of the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. "This district has had to put so much of its energies into housing kids that it has not been able to focus on educating them."
Only three other states—Idaho, Missouri, and New Hampshire—require a two-thirds majority to pass local school bonds.
But the organized opposition to Proposition 26—a citizen's group known as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the state Libertarian Party—argues that the measure would shift to local property owners a burden that should rightfully be borne by the state.
"I can show you homeowners with leaky roofs and broken toilets who can't afford to pay for an increase in property taxes," said Kris Vosburgh, the executive director of the taxpayers association. "The two-thirds vote has always been a vital protection for homeowners. Not all voters are going to be responsible for paying the [property] tax, and it's no great sacrifice to vote to raise someone else's taxes."
Of the 776 local school bond elections in California since 1986, 40 percent of the measures failed despite receiving approval from a majority of voters. Only 6 percent were voted down by a majority of voters.
Opponents of Proposition 26 argue that those statistics show how easy it would be for school districts to raise property taxes needlessly. But supporters counter that Proposition 26 would require school districts to specify up front which construction projects the bonds would underwrite and then submit to audits that hold them accountable.
Statewide, education groups including the California school boards' and school administrators' associations and the CTA have joined forces with the state chamber of commerce and other business interests to campaign for the measure. But even after spending more than $12 million through Jan. 15, compared with the roughly $1 million spent by the opposition campaign, proponents of Proposition 26 are by no means guaranteed a victory next week.
Voters rejected a similar measure placed on the ballot by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1993. And a recent poll by the Field Institute, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in market and consumer research, suggested that support for Proposition 26 was waning.
The Field Poll released Feb. 10 found that 41 percent of likely voters favored the measure—down from 59 percent in October—while 37 percent said they opposed it, and 22 percent remained undecided. (The poll had a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.)
Burt McChesney, a co-chairman of the "Let's Fix Our Schools" campaign and the executive director of California Business for Education Excellence, said school and business groups were more united than ever, and were running a more aggressive campaign than in 1993.
He attributed the sagging poll numbers to voters' being misinformed that Proposition 26 would raise property taxes on its own.
"Our schools are some of the oldest, most dilapidated, and technologically inferior schools in the country," Mr. McChesney said. "We have a $30 billion school funding need over the next 10 years. Communities can't rely on the largess of the state coming to their rescue, because it's not going to."
District officials here in Vista now say they have no choice but to wait for the state to bail them out. After the district lost a $96 million bond election last June by just 2 percentage points, they considered instituting double sessions to alleviate school crowding.
"We were short by about 2,000 votes, and it really sank the community's hearts," said Don Petros, a father of two school-age children and a leader in a grassroots group that tried to rally support for another bond measure after the June defeat. "It was a make-or-break vote, and it failed."
Since 1990, the district has stretched the capacity of its facilities by operating on a year-round calendar that allows only two-thirds of students to attend school at any given time. Double sessions would mean that schools would be open as early as 6 a.m. and close as late as 8 p.m. to accommodate two full cycles of students.
The possibility of double sessions drew an immediate outcry from parents and community members, and roughly 1,200 people turned out at a school board meeting last August to plead with members to place another bond measure on theballot.
Instead, Vista officials decided to line up for a share of the hardship funding the state has reserved for districts unable to pass local school bonds. The $1 billion in hardship funds come from the $6.7 billion statewide ballot measure for K-12 school construction that was approved by voters in November 1998.
Yet even if the district receives enough state money to avoid double sessions for now, it will not represent a long-term solution, Superintendent Dave Cowles said.
"We're in a race with all the other school districts in California to get the state money before it runs out," he said. "This money will not last through the completion of our projects."
Regardless of whether the district receives state money, Mr. Cowles said, it will need to put another bond measure on the ballot within the next two years.
In the meantime, Vista principals and teachers say they have had to be creative with their existing space.
Administrators at Rancho Buena Vista High School recently gave juniors permission to leave campus for lunch to relieve severe crowding. The 3,200-student school was built to serve 1,800, and the hallways between classes have become "as crowded as the mall at Christmastime," said Principal Richard Alderson.
At Madison Middle School, the facility constructed solely of portable classrooms, students have had to play on a dirt athletic field and a heavily trafficked blacktop. Madison piggybacks on the water and sewer facilities of a neighboring elementary school, and therefore lacks enough water to grow grass.
Water is at such a premium at Madison that a science teacher is conducting an experiment that makes use of the condensation dripping from the school's air-conditioning units to water plants.
In addition, with the school in use every weekday except between Christmas and New Year's Day, no time is available for basic maintenance, Principal Theresa Ketchem-Grace said. As a result, railings leading to the 6-year-old portable classrooms are speckled with chipping paint.
All the boys at the 600-student school use a single restroom, and all the girls use another; all staff members share a lone unisex facility. Last year, when the restrooms had to be refloored, students were forced to use portable toilets.
The students know they are getting a raw deal, said Mr. Petros, whose son is attending 8th grade at Madison.
"By the time they're in junior high school, they're aware of what the facilities look like at other places," Mr. Petros said. "They feel cheated. They have no sports fields or nice facilities, and they know it."
At a telephone bank set up by the Vista chapter of the CTA, parents and school employees worked the phones one recent evening, urging their neighbors to vote for Proposition 26.
Tucked behind makeshift cardboard dividers, many of the callers read from a script prepared by the statewide campaign office, reminding potential voters that bonds for prisons and sports stadiums, but not schools, can be passed with simple majorities.
But even though they hoped the statewide measure would succeed, some said the damage to their district had already been done.
"You can't crowd kids in and expect to get a quality education," Mr. Conry said. "I don't know what's going to happen to this generation of kids who have passed through their youth without seeing their communities caring."
Vol. 19, Issue 25, Pages 1,26-27