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A Rare Meeting of Minds for California's Schools

Teachers and builders unite in backing artful compromise

September 11, 1997

California's 5.6-million-student public school enrollment is projected to grow by 1 million in the next decade. To provide enough classrooms, a coalition of groups not often on the same side of an issue has arisen in support of a practical proposal now pending before the Legislature. The groups backing the plan are the California Teachers Assn. and the California Building Industry Assn. In addition, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson support it.

The artful package has something for each side. It would authorize an $8.2-billion state school bond and ask California voters to lower the margin required to approve a local school bond measure from the current onerous two-thirds to a more reasonable simple majority. The builders would get a cap on the fees they have to pay for new school construction and in return would offer their backing on the change to a majority vote.

The Legislature, in one of its final acts of this session, should approve the package.

The state bond measure would guarantee a steady flow of school construction funds over four years. Much of the money would go to eliminate a backlog caused by the long recession, which reduced state revenues, discouraged approval of state and local bonds and dried up the developer fees that help pay for new schools in some districts.

New school construction is financed half with state money and half with local money; many school districts depend on local school bonds to come up with their matching share, and the two-thirds requirement for local votes has been an enormous hurdle. In Los Angeles, Proposition BB, a $2.4-billion school bond measure passed in April, was the first such measure approved in the district in 25 years. In effect, the two-thirds formula gives a minority of voters a veto over local funding for new schools.

The proposed cap on developer fees is a pure quid pro quo. Developers in California are assessed a fee for school construction, currently ranging up to $9 per square foot or more. They complain that some districts seek high fees to build state-of-the-art "Taj Mahal" campuses. The legislation would cap those fees at 50% of the cost of a campus that meets basic state standards, higher than what the developers sought and not limited to a certain dollar amount as they proposed earlier.

The school finance legislative package does not give either the teachers or the developers all they asked. It does not provide all the funds needed to accommodate the expected crush of new students. But the trade-offs are worth the payoff in decent classroom space. Legislators--and after that, California voters--ought to get behind this compromise.

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