Calif. Flush With Wave of School Bond Votes

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Faced with mounting school facility needs, Californians are voting on, and passing, record numbers of local school construction bonds. But in the state Capitol, feuding lawmakers remain paralyzed over a statewide bond for schools that many say is urgently needed.

The developments mean mixed news for the state's K-12 population, which is growing by 80,000 students a year, and complicating a massive effort to shrink K-3 class sizes to 20 students. ("Class-Size Cuts in Calif. Bring Growing Pains," April 30, 1997.)

"The economy is buoyant, and people vote their pocketbook, so it's a good time to vote for a bond," said Jim Murdoch, a lobbyist for the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a Sacramento-based group representing school districts, county education offices, and building industry groups.

Missed Opportunity

But lawmakers missed an opportunity to exploit the favorable climate last week when they failed to meet a March 9 deadline for putting a proposed statewide school bond on the June 2 ballot.

"The governor is very disappointed," said Dan Edwards, a spokesman for the state office of child development and education. "Depending on who you believe, we have from $20 billion to $40 billion in construction needs over the next seven years."

Last year, California saw 126 district tax and bond elections--the most ever in a single year, according to data compiled by Stone & Youngberg LLC, a brokerage firm in San Francisco. The trend is expected to continue when voters go to the polls April 14 for dozens of local school bond elections.

What is less clear is whether voters can beat last year's 62 percent school bond success rate. That proportion far exceeded the 48 percent average passing rate from 1983 to 1997. California requires a two-third majority vote to approve local school bonds.

"The passage rate is going up incrementally," said Ann M. Evans, the director of school facilities planning for the state education department. "But it's tremendously hard work to find two yes votes for every no vote."

Ms. Evans said that rising enrollment, aging buildings, and the statewide push for smaller classes is fueling the local bond rush.

Her office estimates that it would cost the state $20 billion through 2002 to meet its school facility needs. More than half of that, or $11 billion, would go to modernization. The total also includes $1.25 billion for the facilities needed for the state's popular class-size-reduction program, which Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has championed. To date, 84 percent of the state's 1.9 million K-3 students are taking part in the 2-year-old initiative.

And 1998 could also be a good year for school bonds, at least if recent events in the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento are any indication.

In a March 10 special election, the rapidly expanding, 40,000-student system saw a $205 million bond issue approved by an overwhelming 80.7 percent of voters. The funds will help build 32 new schools and upgrade others.

Officials with the Torrance Unified district 15 miles southwest of Los Angeles would settle for a one-vote victory when the polls there open April 14 for the third school bond election in a year. The latest, an $80 million proposal, would cover the repairs and modernization of 32 schools in the 23,600-student system. In November, a bond question fell 3 percentage points short of passage.

"We're drawing operational money from the general fund that should be going to technology and books to do Band-Aid stuff," said Kevin Condon, the chief business officer for the district.

Bond supporters in Torrance hope more parents will turn out this time, especially since the bond would bring the district more technology and classroom space. The district has placed 80 portable classrooms on 17 of its campuses to make room for smaller classes.

State to the Rescue?

But Mr. Condon, like other local and state officials, is growing weary of Sacramento's failed efforts to move a statewide school construction bond onto the ballot.

Similar efforts have failed in each of the last two legislative sessions. This time, the lower house of the legislature came up one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to qualify a $9.2 billion state bond election for the June ballot. The state Assembly vote, taken March 5, was 46-33. The Senate passed the bill March 3 by a 28-6 vote.

Rep. Kerry Mazzoni, the Democratic chairwoman of the Assembly education committee, sponsored the bill. Revenue from the bond would have been allocated over two years to build new schools, rehabilitate old ones, and construct joint-use public facilities, such as libraries.

"It's the Assembly Republicans who refuse to move on this issue, and refuse to be bipartisan," Ms. Mazzoni said in a floor speech.

But Republicans said that they opposed the bill because it failed to address their demands to lower the developer fees that districts can charge on construction projects. Some said the bill was just too expensive.

Gov. Wilson also accused the Democrats of using the bill to grandstand and pledged to veto it. He is now pushing his own plan for an $8 billion, four-year bond package that would lower construction costs and streamline the school construction bureaucracy.

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