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First, Give Us Some Guarantees

School facilities are in dire need of repair, but voters must be assured that the bond revenues won't be misspent.

March 30, 1997|JOEL FOX | Joel Fox is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn

The Los Angeles Unified School District's effort to pass a $2.4-billion construction bond on the April ballot brings to mind Jack Benny. When he was confronted with a mugger's question, "Your money or your life?" his famous response, after a classic Benny pause, was, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!"

Los Angeles taxpayers feel similar anguish over another difficult question: Will they get their money's worth if they vote for the school bonds?

From leaky roofs to dilapidated restrooms, anecdotal evidence on a grand scale indicates that the schools are in need of refurbishing and repair. The oft-cited need for air conditioning in schools is a legitimate capital improvement. Increasing enrollment and efforts to reduce class size are putting pressure on the system for more room.

However, administering the money to make the repairs will be an LAUSD leadership whose image, when it comes to spending taxpayer money, desperately needs a face-lift. And, that's despite spending $150,000 a few years back on a media consultant to improve televised appearances of the board members and staff. Then again, questionable spending on consultants is part of the image problem.

Billions of taxpayer dollars sent to the school district have not bought improved education. Recent headlines dealing with the LAUSD have been about the controversial issues of ebonics and compensation for domestic partners of employees. The only news on the education front is that test scores are down.

In the late 1980s, the school board signed a generous salary contract with the teachers union (and later with administrators) that was impossible to honor. When the recession hit, the teachers recognized the district's dire situation and agreed to put off some of their raises. However, several years later when the teachers became impatient and demanded the promised pay increases, the school board foolishly said yes, even though that threatened to put the district into bankruptcy. Only a miraculous windfall of state funds saved the school system.

Can the school board convince the taxpaying public that the bond money will be spent wisely? It's trying. For the first time, the board has established an oversight committee to monitor spending of the bond revenues. The committee is to ensure that the money is spent on needed capital improvements, repairs and wiring for computers, not for salaries or operation costs.

For some, the oversight committee is not enough. They would prefer to pull down what they see as a failed education system rather than rebuild its infrastructure.

Many of these critics seek a voucher system for students to attend private schools, which would reduce the need for space in public ones. More important, the competition for the students just may reverse the lethargic performance of many public schools.

However, the voucher plan is controversial. Failure of the bond doesn't guarantee acceptance of the voucher system in the near term. Even if this change does come--as it should--public education will not disappear.

Further, many voters are legitimately concerned about the cost of education driven up by the children of illegal immigrants. For them, opposing the bond would put an exclamation point to their anger.

As long these battles will go on, the physical condition of the schools continues to deteriorate; the students are left in a potentially unsafe environment.

The LAUSD has an opportunity to remove doubt from the taxpayers before the April vote by making stronger, specific guarantees that this bond money will be spent efficiently and properly. The board can go further by expressing a concrete vision that the new and refurbished buildings will house a renaissance of education success.

The taxpayers are waiting to be convinced.

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