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ELECTIONS '96

L.A. School Bond Measure Appears Headed for Defeat

Education: District's attempt to raise $2.4 billion for improvements appeared unlikely to pass. Community college funding issue was faring worse.

November 06, 1996|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The first Los Angeles Unified School District bond measure put before voters in more than two decades--designed to provide $2.4 billion over the next 18 years for repairs and construction--appeared to be falling short of the required two-thirds majority in early election results.

Backers of Proposition BB tried to remain optimistic Tuesday night as initial results reached them at the Biltmore Hotel downtown.

"It's very disappointing not to win, but a majority--a big majority--of people voted for the kids and voted for the schools," school board President Jeff Horton said.

Proposition AA, a similar capital funding measure that sought $205 million for lighting and landscaping at the nine Los Angeles community colleges, was faring even worse--failing even to garner a simple majority.

Although the outcome of the public school bond was still uncertain, attention had begun to shift Tuesday night toward the next attempt to get funds for the needed improvements, with frequent mentions of Fresno, where school bond backers called their first three tries "building blocks" when they finally won last year.

In Los Angeles, the decision about whether to try again rests with the school board. But dates were already being bandied about as returns rolled in Tuesday, ranging from as early as next spring to as late as November 1998.

"To me, it isn't a question of whether, it's a question of when," Supt. Sid Thompson said in an interview.

Thompson and other Los Angeles Unified officials said the district's school-by-school campaign for a bond issue was handicapped by a late start, lagging contributions--which at $450,000 were less than half of the original goal--and generally anemic participation by the teachers union, which is busy with testy salary negotiations.

Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, said it had been difficult to stir up enthusiasm among teachers because of the union's ongoing wage dispute. But Higuchi also said the bond campaign was disorganized.

"Our members would have gladly pitched in, in many cases, but there was no school-site campaign at their schools," he said. "We didn't know what the hell was going on half the time."

The measure garnered many important endorsements, including that of the state's highest education official, Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. But it failed to gain key local supporters, such as Mayor Richard Riordan.

At the same time, the urgency of passing Proposition BB intensified in recent weeks as the nation's second-largest district experienced its greatest one-year enrollment surge ever, bringing the student population to nearly 668,000 and increasing the need for classroom space.

But even before that enrollment increase was documented, Los Angeles Unified was in sorry physical shape. Maintenance backlogs of more than $600 million left most of the 663 schools with voluminous repair lists.

Critics of the bond bid blamed the district for letting schools go to seed despite having a budget of nearly $5 billion. District officials insisted that they have had little choice but to ignore basic upkeep.

"We've gotten these little piddling amounts from the state [for maintenance] that just take care of absolute dire emergencies, and we put a little money from our operating budget aside for that too, for when the fence falls down," Thompson said. "Yes, we could choose to put more money toward it . . . but when you look back at our history, we haven't done anything for our employees, there's been very little for programs. In a word, it was survival."

There was no organized opposition to the measure, but the district nonetheless waged an uphill battle against the public perception that, despite some improvement, the system is still bloated, poorly managed and failing its students. Furthermore, fewer than 15% of voters in Los Angeles have children in its public schools, according to Larry Tramutola, Proposition BB's campaign consultant.

Tramutola, who before Tuesday had established the enviable record of working on 32 successful bond campaigns out of 34, said the low level of vested interest is not unusual.

"I've never seen a place where it's more than 30%," Tramutola said. "You've got to be able to reach voters who do not have kids in school. They will make it happen."

The bond issue would have required a property tax increase of $14 to $68 per $100,000 in assessed valuation. After a local opinion poll showed that support for the measure dropped below the required two-thirds margin when the tax increase was mentioned, those figures were left out of the campaign's literature.

Instead, the campaign strategy in Los Angeles reflected tactics used elsewhere around the state: engage individual school communities in running their own mini-campaigns by providing each campus an itemized list of their potential bounty. San Fernando Valley schools were promised air conditioning, while most schools were promised fresh asphalt and many were promised a new coat of paint.

The main thrust of the campaign was on the tangible needs that every voter could understand instead of items with a less obvious link to education, such as computers or school construction.

It is a technique that has served other communities well, especially in recent years as districts have increasingly turned to bonds to meet capital needs neglected since 1978, when Proposition 13 limited revenues from property taxes that financed schools while requiring districts to get a two-thirds approval from voters for any new taxation.

But most of those successful bids began at least a year ahead of time, while in Los Angeles the final decision to try the November ballot was reached just a few months ago after an encouraging local poll and the March 1996 passage of a $3-billion state school bond.

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