Calif. Ordered To Overhaul School Construction Funding

By Bess Keller — September 06, 2000 2 min read

California must change its current system of distributing school construction money to place less emphasis on how quickly districts apply for the funds and more on how badly they need them, a Los Angeles judge has ruled.

State trial court Judge David P. Yaffee ordered the state to come up with a different way to distribute the roughly $1.4 billion remaining from a $2.9 billion fund for new schools financed through a 1998 bond issue. The new system must give greater priority to districts with the most school overcrowding, the judge said in the Aug. 24 order.

Judge Yaffee told the state to report to him on a new ranking program by Oct. 6.

The order resulted from a lawsuit filed last March by a coalition that includes Los Angeles students and community groups. The plaintiffs contended that because it takes longer for urban districts to come up with sites where they can build new schools, the districts— and the schoolchildren in them, who are disproportionately poor and minority— will be deprived of their fair share of the money under the current system of first come, first served. The state will not accept applications for projects without a site.

While lawyers for the coalition viewed the order as a victory in their fight to get urban districts more construction money, the judge has refused to bar the state from handing out the aid until it changes its funding system, as the suit requested. He said the state legislature clearly intended to distribute the money based on need, but that the State Allocation Board, which doles out the funds, may set a time limit for applications.

Los Angeles To Benefit

The 700,000-student Los Angeles district was not a party to the suit, but officials there praised the order, which is expected to help the city schools.

“This important decision gives the schoolchildren of Los Angeles a fair chance to compete for the funds desperately needed to meet our enormous enrollment growth,” Roy Romer, the superintendent, said in a statement. The nation’s second-largest school district is already short of space for 77,000 students, according to district calculations.

Los Angeles school officials said they have prepared only a handful of applications so far and have received only a small fraction of the state construction money for which the district is eligible.

Allocation board officials say they already have a new need-based system in the works. The panel considered three proposals on Aug. 23—the day before the judge’s order—but did not take action.

Bruce B. Hancock, the assistant executive officer of the board, said that he expected the board to agree on a plan Sept. 27, and that it would be in effect by the new year.

In some ways, he said, the dispute turns on “how long is the board expected to reserve money for applications that don’t come in and for eligibility that may never be turned into applications.”

Mr. Hancock and Hector O. Villagra, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents the plaintiffs, agree on at least one important point: The construction fund cannot come close to meeting all of California’s school building needs.

“What people have to understand is this bond money was always known to be severely short of the need,” Mr. Villagra said. “You need a Marshall Plan with education at the top of the agenda, and school construction has to be one of its top priorities.”