Voters Approve $2.4 Billion in Bonds for L.A.

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What a difference a day makes for the Los Angeles public schools.

Fresh paint, window-security guards, and new air-conditioning systems were ready to go immediately after last week's vote approving a $2.4 billion bond issue--the largest ever for a school district.

The bond measure, which will finance building repairs and construction of new classrooms, received nearly 71 percent of the vote in the local election April 8, comfortably more than the two-thirds tally required for passage.

"We're in a state of shock and ecstasy," said Brad Sales, the spokesman for the 667,000-student district, the second-largest in the nation.

The last time Los Angeles passed a school bond issue was in 1971.

Galvanized by the bond's defeat by barely more than 1 percentage point last November, district officials and an outside campaign group went gangbusters to rally voters this time around. Hispanic parents, whose children represent 70 percent of the district's enrollment, turned out in force. The measure also received strong support from the local teachers' union and Republican Mayor Richard J. Riordan, who handily won a second term in last week's election.

The measure's victory came as a surprise even to its biggest boosters, especially considering a final week that included a hepatitis A scare, an attempt by Libertarians to block the district's bond campaign, and a storm of criticism from San Fernando Valley residents who advocate the district's breakup.

Linking Safety, Academics

Most of the district's 661 schools are more than 40 years old. Bathroom stalls without doors, antiquated fuse boxes, and garbage cans in hallways to catch the rain from leaking roofs are common sights. ("Campaign Intensifies To Approve $2.4 Billion Bond Proposal in L.A.," April 2, 1997.)

Bond supporters argued that renovations were crucial to student safety and achievement, and they sought to reassure skeptics that an independent oversight committee would make sure bond money was spent efficiently.

"The bond's passage shows that education is something that Angelenos are definitely concerned about," said Erik Nasarenko, the campaign manager for Angelenos for Better Classrooms, the outside group promoting the bond.

The group raised $730,000--$300,000 more than last year's failed bid--and spent $134,000 on a last-minute television blitz. It also organized field offices to drum up grassroots support and distribute mailings.

Mr. Nasarenko described Mayor Riordan's support as key because of his appeal to older, white Republican voters who traditionally reject bond issues. The mayor took no position on the bond in November, but donated $10,000 to the spring bond campaign and touted the initiative in campaign fliers.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles, which was preoccupied with contract negotiations last year, donated $25,000 and mobilized its 31,000 members.

The bond issue faced no organized opposition, though the Libertarian Party, anti-immigration activists, and some proponents of the district's breakup criticized the measure. Assemblyman Thomas McClintock, who is leading the San Fernando Valley's crusade to secede from the district, said he was concerned that bond money wouldn't reach his constituents.

"The district has a management problem, not a revenue problem," he said. "It's the mother of all bureaucracies."

The Republican lawmaker also accused Los Angeles school officials of violating a state law that bars using taxpayer money for political purposes. He filed a complaint with the California attorney general's office, citing a 36-page district memo to school employees that suggested get-out-the-vote strategies.

"It constitutes a misuse of public funds," Mr. McClintock said.

Getting the Message Out

The district says it spent roughly $2.7 million on what it called a "bond information program." Expenses included printing signs, making videos of rundown schools, and hiring a pollster and public relations specialist who specialize in bond issues.

Jeff Horton, the president of the school board, said the district's activities were legal.

"Should we keep it a secret that our schools are falling apart?" Mr. Horton asked "To put a bond issue on the ballot and not tell people what it would be used for would be ridiculous."

Turnout in the election was low, representing only 24 percent of the district's 1.6 million registered voters.

In school board races, incumbent Julie Korenstein was re-elected, and Valerie Fields, an education adviser to former Mayor Tom Bradley, won a seat on the seven-member board.

Board member Victoria M. Castro, who ran unopposed for another term, used her campaign resources to mobilize Hispanic residents to vote for the bond. A Los Angeles Times exit poll indicated that 82 percent of the Hispanics who cast ballots supported the measure.

"I think Latino voters see education as their number-one issue," said Ms. Castro. "We believe in the American dream of a good education, getting a job and supporting our families."

Over the next 25 years, the bond issue will cost the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 about $37.14 annually in additional property taxes.

Over the next five years, the bond money means Ivanhoe Elementary School can fix its badly cracked playground, Marshall Senior High can renovate its auditorium, and Washington Irving Middle School can stop ceiling tiles from falling in the gym.

"We're very excited," said Philip R. Saldivar, the principal of San Fernando Senior High School, which is slated for $7.8 million in repairs. "I think the whole community will be proud of our school."

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