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Published in Print: March 13, 2002, as New Law, Civic Spirit Bolster California Bond Measures

New Law, Civic Spirit Bolster California Bond Measures

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Almost every California school district that asked voters to pay for school construction and renovations last week got the same resounding answer: Yes, yes, yes.

Despite a sluggish economy, 52 school districts across the state found success in local school construction bond votes on March 5. Most were helped, however, by a change in state law requiring a smaller percentage of voters for approval. Ten measures failed statewide.

Previously, school districts needed two-thirds of the votes to pass a bond measure. Now the requirement is 55 percent, thanks to the voter-approved Proposition 39, which passed in 2000 and called for the lower winning margin.

Educators and lobbyists in California who support more money for school construction say last week's votes show widespread interest and sympathy for the public schools, as voters decided to provide more than $3.6 billion for K-12 school buildings statewide.

"It helps us put a dent in California's humongous school facilities needs," said Jim Murdoch, a lobbyist for the Coalition for Adequate Student Housing, a Sacramento-based group that lobbies state leaders to spend more on school construction and renovations. "I think the voters recognize the need."

In one of the day's biggest success stories, voters in the 32,000-student San Jose Unified School District approved a $429 million bond measure that will pay to renovate every school in the city.

"It's the largest bond measure ever passed in northern California," said San Jose Superintendent Linda Murray, still beaming a day after the vote.

The outcome is proof that San Jose citizens believe the school district can manage the extra money, Ms. Murray said, noting that the district had completed projects associated with a smaller bond measure passed a few years ago on time and on budget.

The new legal threshold was a factor in her district's decision to hold the bond vote, but with nearly 70 percent of those who cast ballots voting yes, the San Jose measure would have passed anyway.

Success Elsewhere

Other forces also were working in school districts' favor.

In a region plagued by layoffs and slightly shrinking enrollment, Ms. Murray said she had feared polls taken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would show that people weren't interested in passing a school bond measure.

She was surprised to learn that instead, two-thirds of voters said they would back the proposals.

"It was a strong indication that our community believes public education is the most important priority for our nation," Ms. Murray said.

Last week's bond votes showed that only voters in smaller and more rural school districts were less prone to approve tax increases for school construction, according to data from Stone & Youngberg, a San Francisco-based bond brokerage firm that monitors the elections and works with local governments across the state.

Dennis M. Smith, the superintendent of the 27,000-student Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Orange County, said some of his district's voters told him they were swept up by the current wave of patriotism and inspired to help the local schools.

Almost 66 percent voted for the measure, meaning it would not have passed under the former law. "I think people really recognize that with all the turmoil in the world, if nothing else, they can control their own public schools," said Mr. Smith, adding that the average homeowner in his district now will pay an extra $85 a year in property taxes.

Still, the Orange County district spent almost a year talking with parents and other voters about the needs of a growing suburban community, convincing them that extra space was a dire need.

"They trusted us," Mr. Smith said.

The approval of so many local bond votes boosted the hopes of education groups pushing for more state-level school construction aid.

Lawmakers in Sacramento are considering a bill this year to provide $25 billion over four years in financing for school construction and renovations, said Mr. Murdoch of the school-facilities-advocacy group.

Mr. Smith, the superintendent in Placentia-Yorba Linda, said more school districts might also be inspired to give their own local voters a chance to ante up.

"I think we're going to see more of that [across the state]," he said.

Vol. 21, Issue 26, Pages 14,16

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