Welcome to the Los Angeles public schools, where a $2.4 billion bond proposal for repairs and construction is at stake in next week’s local elections:
- At Ivanhoe Elementary School, where the principal bought lawn seed and a hose with his own money to beautify the barren schoolyard, children recently wrote wish lists for their classrooms that read like letters to Santa Claus.
- At Washington Irving Middle School, where the Valentine’s Day dance was canceled this year because of falling ceiling tiles in the gym, union officials stopped by recently to remind teachers to pass out absentee-ballot applications for the bond measure.
- And in front of the district’s downtown offices, a 6-foot-tall shack dubbed “Reality Elementary"--with a tattered roof, broken window, and list of needed repairs tacked to a wall--reminds passersby of the upcoming vote.
These are snapshots from a massive pep rally aimed at getting out the vote April 8 in the nation’s second-largest school district, where ragtag roofs, peeling paint, and ailing air conditioners are as inevitable as report cards.
Last November, the $2.4 billion construction measure--which would be the largest ever for a single district--missed the two-thirds mark needed to pass by just 1.16 percent. (“L.A. Bond Proposal Nixed; Cleveland Levy Boost Approved,” Nov. 13, 1996.) Supporters say passage of the measure is vital to keep children in safe and decent schools.
“I believe this is the best shot we’ll get for a long time,” said Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson, who started teaching in Los Angeles in 1956 during the last school construction boom. “A good environment is the least we can do for our kids.”
This time around, the mayor and the teachers’ union are solidly on board, and the outside campaign supporting the bond measure has redoubled its efforts. Though state law prevents the school district from actively promoting the proposal, the district has spent roughly $2.7 million since last summer in a public relations campaign carefully defined as a “bond information program.” The program includes registering voters, printing fliers, making videos of rundown schools to show parents, and hiring a pollster and public relations consultant who specialize in bond issues.
“We’ve been careful that we don’t step over the line and become advocates,” said Brad Sales, the chief spokesman for the district. “Our job is to get out the facts and figures.”
Despite a handful of critics who say the district spends inefficiently, there is no organized opposition.
Turnout Worries Backers
But two-thirds of the vote is tough to get at any time. And a spring election, which includes a mayoral contest but lacks the draw of a race for president or governor, tends to attract fewer and more conservative voters.
Most of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 661 schools are more than 40 years old, and their chipped linoleum floors show the wear. This year, the district has squeezed 18,500 more students into those tired buildings as total enrollment reached 667,000.
“The schools are messed up,” said 9th grader Towanda Holcombe, sitting on a worn bench at 46-year-old John Marshall High School, where yellow garbage cans in the hallways catch the rain. “I have a good academic record, but I’m embarrassed for anybody to see my classrooms.”
Los Angeles provides a clear window into the nationwide epidemic of deteriorating schools, which the federal government estimates would cost at least $112 billion to fix.
The district, which has a $4.8 billion budget this year, is also looking to the state to match the $900 million portion of the proposed bond issue that is earmarked for new construction. The proposal, known as Proposition BB, would cost the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 about $37.14 a year in property taxes over the life of the bond.
All the candidates on the April 8 ballot for mayor, City Council, and school board have endorsed the bond issue.
“When you teach in a room with rain coming through the roof and paint chipping and bad pipes, children develop justification for a set of values that says, ‘People don’t care about me,’” said David Tokofsky, a school board member who is also an English and social studies teacher outside the district.
At many schools here, the playgrounds haven’t been resurfaced in years. Children at Telfair Elementary School trip over deep cracks in the asphalt. “I was running and I fell down and I knocked a tooth out, and I started crying,” recalled 2nd grader Rosa Espinoza, who wears her long, dark hair in a ponytail.
“Our playground is a nightmare,” said Principal Consuelo Garcia, looking over a lot that resembles cracked, baked clay. “Children deserve better than this.”
Ms. Garcia was at the school on a recent Saturday to show parents around and encourage them to vote. Similar events have been held at every school.
Florencio DeSantiago, a construction worker whose son is a 4th grader at Telfair, was one of about 25 parents who showed up and expressed support for school renovations. But Mr. DeSantiago and many of the other Telfair parents who came by are not U.S. citizens and can’t vote.
On the other hand, some strong supporters of Proposition BB will be casting ballots for the first time. Carina Armente and Andrea Sandobal, co-student-body presidents at San Fernando Senior High, can hardly wait to step into the voting booth, and they’ve been helping their 18-year-old classmates register.
As the students showed visitors around during the open house, Ms. Armente recalled that when a student recently had a seizure in class, the teacher could not reach the nurse in the main office over the broken intercom system. One of her classmates pointed out the dim lighting in the outdoor halls and a boys’ bathroom with no doors on the stalls.
“One man on the tour said this looked like a prison,” Ms. Sandobal said.
Mayor Steps Forward
School officials launched the second Proposition BB campaign in February with Mayor Richard J. Riordan by their side. The GOP mayor’s support is vital in an election in which his typical supporter--a white Republican--is also a loyal springtime voter.
During an interview late last month at his official residence, the mayor said he didn’t endorse the bond measure last year because he wasn’t satisfied with the five-member committee that would be created to oversee it. Now the committee would have nine members and would also include a mayoral appointee.
“I don’t think the bond measure is a magic pill, but making schools clean and nice is a worthy goal,” he said.
The mayor’s donation of $10,000 and a $25,000 contribution by the United Teachers of Los Angeles have helped give Proposition BB political as well as financial clout. The 31,000-member teachers’ union endorsed the measure last year, but contract negotiations hindered the influential organization from actively campaigning.
Now, lawn signs leaning against the union office’s door tout both the school board candidates and Proposition BB, and union officials have been visiting schools to drum up support.
After listening to UTLA President Day HiguchiCOMMENTMODEcq talk about the bond measure during lunch hour at Washington Irving Middle School, where most classrooms lack air conditioning, 8th grade teacher Joe Meuret said he was already convinced. “When you have 30 students in a room that’s nearly 100 degrees, there’s not a lot of learning going on,” he said.
War Chest Has Grown
The outside campaign advocating the bond issue, called Angelenos for Better Classrooms, is headquartered on the 11th floor of a swanky downtown office building. A high-profile political-consulting firm was hired last year to run the campaign.
But this time, in addition to the downtown headquarters, the campaign is using donated space in San Pedro, Encina, and East Los Angeles, and the staff has tripled from four to 12. At least eight separate mailings will go out to targeted groups, including Republican women, parents, and traditional spring voters.
So far, the campaign has raised about $650,000--$220,000 more than last year’s failed attempt.
“One of our best arguments is that we came within 1.16 percent last time, and with your help, we can make the difference,” said Erik Nasarenko, the enthusiastic, freckle-faced campaign manager. “Last time, people were tremendously skeptical, while now they sense they’re on a winning team.”
Though there is no organized opposition, there are some critics of the bond measure, including some residents who oppose providing public services for illegal immigrants, and Libertarian Party members, who advocate a minimalist approach to government.
The party, which counts about 77,000 members in the state, opposes all bond financing because interest on the bonds increases a project’s cost.
“In 10 years, when the teachers need a raise or we need a new school, we won’t have the money because we’ll still be paying for this bond,” said Pam Probst, who chairs the party in central Los Angeles.
Past as Prologue
Critics of the bond measure are banking on California’s anti-tax history, best symbolized by Proposition 13, which capped local property taxes in 1978 and has since drastically reduced the ability of school districts to raise money.
The last time Los Angeles passed a school bond measure was in 1971, not long after an earthquake closed many schools in the district.
But the tide may be turning, said Bob Blattner, the legislative coordinator for School Services of California, a consulting firm. He noted that state voters approved a $3 billion bond measure for schools one year ago and that last month, 16 of the 26 proposed bond measures on local ballots around the state succeeded.
He also said Los Angeles should have better luck the second time around, pointing out that Fresno, which is north of Los Angeles, passed a $215 million bond on its fourth attempt. “A number of districts have found that if you keep chipping away, you’ll get it.”