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New Boom in the Schools

October 18, 1987

California's school-age population is booming again, and the implications that this growth holds for state fiscal and education policies are both staggering and challenging. As Gov. George Deukmejian and his staff prepare their education budget for next year, they should examine carefully the projections made this week in Sacramento by state and local school officials. When they do, they cannot help but conclude that standing still financially this year will in fact mean losing ground as more students flood into the system.

The children of immigrants and of the baby-boom generation will swell the school population by 140,000 students a year for the next six years, lawmakers were told Thursday at a special hearing of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said this increase means that California needs 800 new schools and perhaps another university campus. That will cost $6.5 billion, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars required to operate the schools, pay teachers and buy books and other supplies.

As usual, Los Angeles faces one of the biggest burdens. James Murdoch, a consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District, laid it out for the legislators. Not only is Los Angeles the biggest district in the state, he said, it is also the fastest-growing district in the entire country. By 1997, he said, city schools will have an additional 184,000 students to house. This means that the city would have to build about 92 elementary schools, 27 junior highs and 18 senior highs. To do so, Murdoch added, the city would have to buy 3,000 acres--that is, 5 square miles of land--inside the school district's boundaries. Land and construction would cost $4.6 billion.

Los Angeles has already taken one overdue, if unpopular, step by deciding to put the entire district on year-round schedules. But obviously much more must be done, both in local districts and in Sacramento.

Other districts should consider the year-round option. "It cuts costs 15% to 20%," Honig said. And it may yield more state money to local districts under new legislation signed by the governor. That bill, which was sponsored by Assemblymen Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento) and Bill Leonard (R-Redlands), requires districts to consider converting to year-round operations and gives them priority for state money if they elect that option.

Local communities can place school construction bonds on their ballots, but they need a two-thirds vote to pass. Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria) is sponsoring a measure (ACA 49) that would allow such bonds to be decided by majority vote consistent with the requirements for statewide bond issues.

But the main obligation for California's schools lies with the state. The warnings sounded in Sacramento this week bear witness again to the need to change the state's constitutional spending limits so that California will have maneuvering room to face its future. That future has already arrived in the form of tens of thousands of youngsters who need sound public education, and California is not as well equipped to deal with them as it must become.

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