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State Studies New School Funding

Education: Legislature considers returning the burden of payment to taxpayers and stemming escalating developer fees.


SANTA CLARITA — Kissing his mother goodbye and slinging his book bag over his tiny shoulder, 10-year-old Garrett Baldwin strolled into the brand-new Stevenson Ranch Elementary School a year ago and took a seat in one of its ultra-modern classrooms.

But when school resumes today, there's a better than 50-50 chance Garrett will be dispatched to a trailer-like portable classroom.

Garrett may be too busy with multiplication tables to be aware of it, but his step down in the classroom world is the subject of a battle in Sacramento over who should foot the bill for school construction: local taxpayers--as in the past--or the developers who build the houses that attract families with young children, as became the norm in recent years.

Officials from elementary schools in the Santa Clarita Valley--now experiencing superheated growth--and developing areas around the state are being forced to park rows of the temporary classrooms on school playgrounds to house an overflow of children.

"There are more portable classrooms than regular ones," said Garrett's mother, Lorrie Baldwin, 42. "The kids used to have a playground, but now there are portables covering it.

"Do I have to start looking for a private school again?" she asks. "Geez, the schools in Santa Clarita are the reason I moved here."

To sort out a way to fund new schools in the coming decade, state legislators are considering a proposal, backed by the California Building Industry Assn. and the California Teachers Assn.

Basically, it would throw much of the financial burden of school construction back onto taxpayers of a school district, reducing the bills that increasingly in recent years have been shifted to developers.

Five bills dealing with the issue will be taken up today by a joint Assembly-Senate special committee charged with coming up with a version acceptable to both houses.

The proposal would cap fees that developers pay for new schools, and it seeks a constitutional amendment eliminating the long-standing requirement that school construction bond proposals be approved by a two-thirds majority in an election. The requirement, which has been blamed for the defeat of many school bond proposals in recent years, would be changed to approval by a simple majority vote.

The proposal would also ask voters to approve $20 billion in school construction bonds over 10 years.

One version of the proposal would divide up school construction costs in equal thirds among the state, developers and local taxpayers. It also would force school districts to accept certain cost-cutting measures, such as year-round schooling.

School boards in Santa Clarita and elsewhere in the state oppose much of the proposal, arguing that taxpayers will reject paying for new schools as they have increasingly done in the past and that the proposal is a ploy to yank away the funding source the schools obtained in three court victories in the late 1980s.

Among them was a suit by Santa Clarita's William S. Hart Union High School District that gave city and county governments a legal right to reject a project if they believed the developer hadn't offered enough money for the construction of new schools.

Two similar suits at the time, including the Mira Development Corp. vs. the City of San Diego, helped strengthen the rights of the schools. They are now referred to collectively as the Hart-Mira decisions.

"The developers are trying to use Sacramento to get what they want," said Ben Dolinka, a consultant to the Hart district. "If it passes, local taxpayers won't be able to choose whether developers should pay or not."

Nowhere in the state has the issue been as hotly contested as in the Santa Clarita Valley, where overcrowding is taking place in elementary schools through the high school level.

"We got hit with huge growth . . . at a time when the state ran out of money and couldn't keep up," said Santa Clarita Mayor Clyde Smyth, a former school superintendent.

In an area that grew 900% between 1960 and 1990--from 15,000 inhabitants to 151,000--construction has again picked up due to the recovering economy. Estimates have the Santa Clarita Valley increasing by more than eight times by 2015, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

Members of the Building Industry Assn. say they see an equitable partnership emerging out of the proposal similar to the one that existed before voters passed Proposition 13, limiting property taxes that once went to support schools.

"When I was in high school, the community recognized how important education was," said Richard Lyon, a lobbyist for the BIA. "They recognized it as a public infrastructure and financed it through bonds. The financing of schools is not solely the responsibility of the developer but the entire community."

Lyon said that housing prices are skyrocketing as a result of developers' need to recoup higher school fees, and that if the trend continues, the majority of homes in the state will be unaffordable for most people.

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