A new law in California will make it easier for low-performing schools to pay for repairs to their facilities.
What was known as the state’s Emergency Repair Program has been converted from an $800 million reimbursement program into a grant program. Schools no longer will have to pay for repairs upfront and then wait to be repaid, a process that can take three months or longer.
The new program, which goes into effect Jan. 1, is part of a package of “cleanup” legislation that applies to what is known as the Williams settlement, resolving a lawsuit over school facility conditions and teaching materials. Regulations allowing schools to apply for the money are expected to be available sometime in the spring.
Eligible schools—which are determined by their rankings on the state’s academic-performance index—still will be reimbursed if they pay for repairs with local funds.
“I’ve had county superintendents say, ‘This is a godsend,’ and that we’re really going to see a swell in the number of applications” for the money, said Brooks Allen, a staff lawyer for the Los Angeles-based American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which represented the plaintiffs in the school facilities lawsuit.
The previous program, which was part of the lawsuit settlement, has been used to reimburse districts for addressing such problems as termite damage, gang graffiti, and overflowing septic systems. But some school district officials were hesitant to apply for the funds because they had to wait to get their money back from the state, and because they didn’t know if their repairs would meet the state’s standards for “emergency facilities needs.”
Since the beginning of the program, only $7.3 million from the fund has been spent, even though the ACLU of Southern California says that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of repairs have been documented through an ongoing Williams inspection process. Currently, more than $300 million is available in the fund, and $100 million will be added each fiscal year until the $800 million mark is reached.
Districts that have taken advantage of the existing program are also pleased to see the change coming.
“It’s not about protecting the money. It’s about spending the money for the schools that need the help,” said John Klang, the maintenance-service manager for the 79,000-student Fresno Unified School District. So far, the district has received roughly $800,000 from the Emergency Repair Program to fix broken windows, replace loose carpet, repair leaky roofs, and deal with other safety concerns.
The settlement that led to the new program stems from the Williams v. California lawsuit filed in 2000. Lead plaintiffs Eliezer “Eli” Williams and his father, Sweetie Williams, of San Francisco, charged that the state was denying hundreds of thousands of students their right to an education by failing to provide basic necessities, such as sufficient and up-to-date educational materials, qualified teachers, and clean and safe school buildings.
Since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger settled the case in 2004, the 58 county offices of education have been responsible for supervising the districts in their counties, conducting facility and textbook inspections, and monitoring whether teachers have the proper credentials, especially if more than 20 percent of their students are English-language learners.
Assembly Bill 607, the cleanup legislation signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, in September, also merges an existing process for filing complaints about dirty or locked school restrooms with the “uniform complaint process” that was part of the settlement.
“In negotiations, this just seemed to make sense,” Mr. Allen said, adding that many parents and students were unaware that restroom complaints were handled through a different process. The measure also changes the process for purchasing textbooks and other instructional materials for students without them.
Previously, the California Department of Education—after receiving requests from the county superintendents—had to wait for approval from the state board of education before making a purchase. But with the state board’s agenda always full, such requests sometimes didn’t come before the board until March of each year, when the school year was nearly over.
The education department now can immediately buy materials at the request of a county superintendent if a district hasn’t taken care of the purchase by the end of the second month of the school term. The purchase, however, is a loan to the school district. The department must also issue a “public statement” to the state board about the purchase.
“The system was designed to make sure books are in the kids’ hands in eight weeks,” Mr. Allen said. “We hope this makes a real difference.”
In addition, the legislation clarifies the type of information that county superintendents must include in their reports on Williams implementation. While some county offices of education were issuing summaries of the issues that have been addressed at the schools in their districts, the new law will require them to provide more details about facility repairs, areas of noncompliance, and other matters covered by the settlement.