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Assembly OKs Extra Funds for L.A. Unified

Schools: Bill would provide $12 million to $15 million for district to use for portable buildings in class-size reduction effort.

May 23, 1997|MAX VANZI and RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Ending a spate of partisan infighting, the Assembly on Thursday approved a bill that could give the Los Angeles Unified School District an additional $12 million to $15 million to help pay for new classrooms to reduce class sizes.

By current cost estimates, that is enough to pay for 200 to 250 portable classrooms across the district. Adding portables on school grounds is the main method that Los Angeles and many other districts have used to come up with enough space to reduce the number of pupils in three primary grades--choosing from kindergarten through third grade--to no more than 20 pupils.

The bill swept through the Assembly on a 74-2 vote--even winning the vote of Assembly Minority Leader Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who had originally drafted it in a way that would have left Los Angeles Unified with a far smaller amount.

"We beat back amendments that unraveled the compromise," said Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). "It was a victory for our kids."

The bill now goes to the state Senate.

The money in question, about $140 million, was left over from last year's allocation for hiring teachers and covering other operating costs of the class-size reduction program. The bill originally would have shifted the money from that account's surplus to cover the deficit of about the same size in another account set up to pay for the classrooms.

That would have given Los Angeles and other districts a smaller share of the money than under the final version of the bill. Los Angeles officials applied for money for only 1,000 classrooms, the number of portables the district was purchasing, instead of the 2,100 classrooms they were eligible to receive money for under the class-size reduction program. Other districts applied, correctly, for money for every class reduced in size, whether they had to buy portables or not.

Pringle had argued that districts that had applied properly should not be penalized for Los Angeles' failure to do so and should get all the money they had sought, rather than reopen the process.

Earlier, in a committee action, Villaraigosa pushed through amendments over the objections of Pringle, allowing Los Angeles Unified to qualify for a proportional share of the fund to cover more of its costs for smaller first-grade classes.

On Thursday, Pringle tried to amend the measure to reopen the application process but give every district an equal shot. His proposal was rejected by the Democrat-led Assembly and, in the final version, Los Angeles received a higher priority.

Said Pringle after his amendment was defeated along party lines: "It is unfortunate that rather than provide a level playing field for all schools, Democrats in the Assembly chose instead to tilt the field toward one district."

During discussions related to the bill, Los Angeles officials said they had not applied for all the money they were eligible for because the initial application process had been hurried and misleading.

Other districts had submitted accurate applications after clarifying the process with state officials, and they argued that they would wind up with less money if Los Angeles were to get more. But education groups dropped their objections.

That's because the state budget now under discussion in the Legislature has more money than expected for education and for expanding the class-size reduction program.

Between the money left over from last year and the new money in the budget, all districts will benefit. Even so, Los Angeles and other districts will still be left to cover much of the program's first-year costs out of their own budgets because the state money did not meet all the necessary expenses.

"There's very legitimate arguments on both sides, but the good news is that it appears that there's enough money to make sure Los Angeles' new eligibility can be funded and still have enough money" for the needs of the other districts, said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Assn.

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