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School Crowding: Solution Clouded by Electioneering

March 16, 1986|WILLIAM TROMBLEY | Times Urban Affairs Writer

SACRAMENTO — When the people who plan for and build California's schools met here recently, a story made the rounds that somewhere in the state, pupils were attending classes in tents.

The story proved untrue, but its ready acceptance served as testimony that, among school people at least, California's school overcrowding problem has reached crisis proportions. While students may not be going to school in tents, they can certainly be found in deserted warehouses and abandoned pizza parlors.

Enrollment is soaring. The statewide growth in kindergarten through 12th grade is expected to be about 100,000 a year, and the public school population is projected at more than 5 million by 1994-95.

Because providing adequate facilities for this crush of new pupils is a task that cuts across political lines, pressure has been building on both Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and the Democratic-controlled Legislature to do something. But while both sides now acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, election-year political considerations make it doubtful that a solution will be found in 1986.

The statewide surge in school-age children is not in itself a surprise. The state Department of Finance's population unit points out that there has been a steady increase in the number of women of child-bearing age, reversing the trend of the 1970s.

As an example, at Redlands Community Hospital in San Bernardino County there were only 600 births in 1979. By 1985 that number had jumped to 1,800.

"We just caught the first bunch in kindergarten this year," said Dick Bates, facilities planner for the Redlands schools, "but there are a lot more where they came from."

In Los Angeles, where the problem is most severe, enrollment is expected to increase by 82,000 over the next five years. That would bring district enrollment to a record high of about 660,000.

In order to cram more students into existing facilities, 125,000 children already attend year-round schools in Los Angeles. The school board recently voted to order more portable classrooms, increase the busing of students away from overcrowded schools and place more schools on a 12-month calendar, beginning in the summer of 1987.

Booming Suburban Districts

But the problem affects not only Los Angeles, where most of the new students are Asians and Latinos, but booming suburban school districts such as Chino and Moreno Valley, near Riverside, where most of the pupils are white.

Enrollments are rising in every county in the state except Marin and San Mateo, according to the California School Boards Assn.

In some districts the crush of pupils threatens to undermine educational reforms--smaller class size, tougher high school graduation requirements, more emphasis on solid academic subjects--that were instituted three years ago.

"If we don't have the facilities, the educational reforms we've been trying to achieve won't happen," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig said.

But in an election year, when assigning blame for problems and taking credit for solutions have a tendency to take precedence over the problems themselves, arranging for construction of new schools is proving difficult.

"More and more issues are getting wrapped up in gubernatorial politics," Assemblyman Charles Bader (R-Pomona) observed recently. "It's highly unfortunate we weren't able to sell last year's package; a non-gubernatorial election year was the time to do it."

Bader referred to SB 999, school construction legislation that was authored by a Democrat, Sen. Leroy Greene of Carmichael, but had strong Republican support as well.

Vetoed by Deukmejian

The bill passed both houses last year but was vetoed by Deukmejian because it would have cost the state General Fund $250 million the first year, $500 million the second year, and $750 million a year thereafter until the overcrowding problem was solved.

Deukmejian also questioned whether the construction need was as great as the $5 billion claimed by Greene and by the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a major school construction lobbying group with a disarmingly direct acronym, CASH.

After the veto, Deukmejian ordered the Department of Finance to survey the state's 1,000 school districts to determine the real need.

"Having listened to the experts, he decided to send out the amateurs," Greene said acidly.

The Finance Department survey concluded that there was a statewide need for more than $4 billion over a five-year period--$2.8 billion for new construction, $1 billion for renovation and $400 million to $500 million to air-condition and insulate classrooms so they could be used year-round.

On March 1, Deukmejian announced support for two $800-million bond issues--one next November and the second in November, 1988--to meet part of the multibillion-dollar construction need.

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