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Elections '96: A Voter Handbook | The Fight for Calfiornia:
Candidates for president, the Congress and the Legislature
are among those fighting for your attention and your
vote Tuesday. A look at the combatants.

LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT / PROPOSITION BB : Pleading for Funds to Repair Aging Campuses

Supporters must persuade two-thirds of the voters to help improve educational facilities for--in most cases--other people's children.

November 03, 1996|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

They are not luxuries, these things the schools request. They are functioning locker locks and watertight roofs, sound electrical systems and fresh coats of paint, working water fountains and adequate classroom space.

But in the 660-campus Los Angeles Unified School District they add up to a $2.4-billion bill that the public school system has been unable to cover out of its normal budget.

So voters must decide Tuesday whether they want to help by approving Proposition BB. And two-thirds must vote "yes" in order for the measure to pass.

Because the vast majority of voters do not have children in Los Angeles' public schools, the question is a tough one: Are they willing to pay about $100 a year in added taxes to improve the educational facilities for other people's children, to remove eyesores from their neighborhoods, and thus bring Christmas morning early to every Los Angeles public school employee?

It is a question Ernest Tarango, principal of Wilmington Middle School, hears frequently these days, and occasionally from parents of his students.

"Once in a while, when I give them the dollars and cents, they say, 'Oh, that much?' " Tarango said, sitting in an office with mismatched windows and an antiquated radiator.

If the bond measure passes, the 1949 vintage Wilmington Middle School, wedged between South Bay oil refineries, would be one of the biggest winners. It is slated to receive more than $4.3 million to complete a list of repairs and upgrades that would overwhelm many a public administrator, including: replacing deteriorated floor covering (various locations), replacing door locks (all), painting classrooms (all) and re-roofing (auditorium and gym).

A walk through the school last week showed that none of those were frivolous items. Floor covering was paper thin. Here and there, linoleum tiles were missing altogether. Paint was often cracked and peeling, and a large stain on the auditorium's ceiling traced the path of a previous roof leak.

In Karen Kimball's sixth-grade English and history class, windows are stuck shut and many acoustic ceiling tiles are missing. One tile hangs precariously, ready to drop.

"They have bets on when that tile will fall," Kimball said.

Greater problems are hidden inside the walls--antiquated plumbing and wiring systems that bring school district repair crews to the campus monthly.

"An old school is just harder to maintain," the principal said. "You're putting a Band-Aid on it, but then you end up having a problem somewhere else down the line."

Like most public school administrators, Tarango has spent years putting a positive spin on such problems. Shifting into a complaining mode does not come naturally. Even as he points out the deterioration, he remarks on how clean the school is kept, how nicely the classrooms are decorated, how dedicated his staff remains.

Yet the bond campaign has relied heavily on the complaints of Tarango and hundreds of other principals. That approach became even more essential when fund-raising on behalf of the measure fell far short of the $1-million goal, reaching about $250,000 at last count.

Though public school employees cannot lobby for the bond during work hours, they can provide information about their schools' needs, which they have been encouraged to do. To that end, each was given a detailed list of repairs the bonds would fund at their campuses.

But that grass-roots approach was handicapped by a late start. The school board only agreed over the summer to place a bond measure on the November ballot and the process of producing the detailed lists took time, leaving most schools lacking that basic information until mid-September.

Typically, other school districts have started up to a year ahead of time, said Larry Tramutola, a campaign consultant hired to help the Los Angeles effort. Tramutola has engineered 34 other school bond or assessment measures--including those in Oakland, Manhattan Beach and South Pasadena--and 32 have passed.

Tramutola concedes that the sizes of Los Angeles and of the proposed bond issue make this a far more difficult task, even though there is no organized opposition. He cautions that it may require more than one ballot attempt to pass such a measure, as it has in some other areas, such as Fresno.

"There is no way, given the needs of the district, that they would not pass a bond at some point," he said. "It's either going to be now or later."

Attempting to woo voters who are virtually untouched by public schools in their day-to-day lives, Tramutola crafted a campaign that emphasizes the deterioration of the facilities, rather than less tangible problems of school crowding or technology needs, which would also be addressed by the bond proceeds. He estimates that fewer than 15% of registered voters in Los Angeles have children in public schools.

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