Beau Yarbrough , Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
12/26/16, 1:28 PM PST | Updated: 2 hrs ago
It’s tough for California voters to say no to more money for school construction. They almost always approve state bond requests, and in November, they passed a $9 billion package that backers promised would help pay for repairs and upgrades needed to preserve students’ access to safe, modern classrooms.
Unlike previous bonds, however, Prop. 51 was placed on the ballot not by elected lawmakers, but by developers looking out for their own interests. Its approval locks in an outdated system that was designed for a time when the student population was growing, and its application process may limit poor districts’ chances of claiming their fair share of the money.
Instead of prioritizing projects for needy communities, the state will dole out these bond proceeds the way it always has: on a first-come, first-served basis. Scores of well-off districts are already in line, and small, impoverished ones have no one in their corner helping them navigate the complicated application process. That means some worthy repair projects may never see a dime.
“Children all across the state are sitting in subpar buildings with leaky roofs and classrooms that can’t support their curriculum,” said Jeff Vincent, who directs UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools. “Some of those problems may not get fixed anytime soon.”
It’s widely agreed that California needs more money for school facilities, and that the bond will help pay for projects that have languished. But the problem starts with how the funds are divided among projects.
One third of the $9 billion bond’s proceeds will support new construction, another third will finance modernization projects and the rest of it will go to career technical education, charter school and community college buildings. That mix may sound reasonable. But when the state created the School Facility Program in 1998, California’s population was booming and new school construction was needed to keep pace. By contrast, public school enrollment over the next decade is projected to dip slightly.
“There will be some new construction needs. Some counties are growing,” said Vincent. “But to suggest that we should spend as much on new construction as we spend on modernization is out of skew with our needs on the ground. Demand for upgrades is far greater.”
The next problem is how the money is awarded. Districts applying to the state must provide matching funds, giving wealthier communities an advantage because they can tap a deeper well of local taxes.
That’s a real concern for Michael Chapko, Director of Facilities for the East Whittier Elementary City School District, which educates about 9,000 students. In November, Whittier voters approved two bonds , Measure R, which provides $24 million to upgrade classroom technology, and Measure Z, which provides $70 million to repair existing infrastructure and purchase security systems, smoke detectors and fire alarms.
“Very much so,” Chapko said. “I’m coming here from a larger district, so I’ve kind of seen it from both sides.”
Under the current school funding system, small districts are never going to be on equal footing with larger ones, he said, to the detriment of students and staff.
“I have friends working in Baker. How the hell do they get any money?” Chapko said. Baker Valley Unified taught 125 students during the 2015-16 school year. “How do you compete with a Long Beach, with a San Diego Unified, with a Sacramento (Unified)? But you’re all expected to apply for this money equally.”
There’s also a lot of uncertainty built into the system.
This disparity isn’t fair to students needy parts of the state, said Shin Green, an Oakland-based consultant whose firm specializes in school infrastructure financing.
“We don’t know where the next doctor or physicist or inventor will come from,” Green said. “Substantial differences in the quality of our facilities mean substantial differences in our kids’ opportunities to learn. And that strikes me as wrong.”
That criticism doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Alan Reising, Long Beach Unified School District’s Executive Director of Facilities Development and Planning. Long Beach voters approved Measure E on November 8 , providing up to $1.5 billion to refurbish aging facilities in Long Beach Unified, which educates nearly 78,000 students .
“It’s not as if ‘OK, Long Beach has $1.5 billion, so they get more money,” he said. “It’s a formula based on what your eligibility is, and how much you can apply for a certain school. … Even if you’re a one schoolhouse district, you’ll still generate eligibility at the same rate that I’ll generate eligibility.”
School districts have to generate 40 percent of the revenue needed for construction funds. But there’s a safety valve in place for those that cannot: If a district can prove financial hardship, the state will pick up 100 percent of the cost of upgrades.
“You could argue that smaller districts, with fewer resources, actually have more resources available,” Reising said. “And that’s the way the system is designed.” But few poor districts are familiar enough with the application process to make it work in their favor, Green said.
“Districts trying to get the septic system fixed or get that bus alternator replaced may not even know who in Sacramento to call for help,” Green said. “I’ve run across districts that assume they can’t get any money and don’t bother applying.”
California school districts have had three main ways to finance schools: state bond measures, local bond measures, and Development Impact Fees — a fee tacked onto development projects meant to defray the expenses of local government agencies, like school districts, created by the new development.
Prop. 51 drew support from a large, diverse coalition of interest groups and politicians, including the California Chamber of Commerce, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, and both the state Democratic and Republican parties. Proponents were eager to replenish California’s fund for school construction, which ran dry four years ago after churning through $40 billion in bond money over the last two decades.
Breaking with recent tradition, this year’s measure was sponsored by two groups that stand to benefit from an incoming wave of school and home building: the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which promotes new school construction, and the California Building Industry Association, a trade group for developers.
Representatives from both organizations declined a request for interviews about their motivations and the need for the bond. Had it failed, districts likely would have raised fees on developers to pay for school projects — either cutting into developers’ bottom lines or prompting them to raise home prices.
Prop. 51’s loudest critic was Gov. Jerry Brown, who called it “a blunderbuss” and said the Legislature could have done a better job than “the developers who put that one together.”
Early this year, Brown collaborated with legislative leaders on a much smaller $5 billion bond that would also have changed the way the state distributes the money, prioritizing projects that reduce overcrowding and protect students’ health and safety.
Among the changes Brown had wanted to see was switching from both the state and local districts going into debt for decades, essentially making mortgage payments on facilities, in favor of a “pay as you go” system.
“The intent was that districts would be fiscally responsible and save into a facilities fund,” Reising said. “From a school district perspective, it wasn’t a consistent source of revenue, so it was really hard to forecast your facilities planning.”
Reising does agree with other of Brown’s concerns, especially concerning the complexity of the current system.
“The way the system is designed and the disconnect between the different organizations can sometimes be daunting,” he said.
But the developers who sponsored Prop. 51 refused to change anything about the existing program or even discuss how to improve it, state Department of Finance Director Michael Cohen noted in an October op-ed urging a no vote. “They insisted on the status quo,” he wrote.