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State Senate Backs School Bond Measure

August 26, 1998|MAX VANZI and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — The state Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to place on the November ballot a record $9.2-billion bond measure designed to relieve California's needy public schools.

The Assembly is expected to follow suit as early as today and send the measure to Gov. Pete Wilson, who announced that the "Legislature has met my challenge" to send him a bond bill he is happy to sign.

"This is truly historic," said Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), who helped write the bill. "We will truly be able to make a dent in the school facilities' needs."

The measure, if approved by voters, would spread the spending of the bond over four years, allocating $6.7 billion to repair and expand kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms, matched by $3.4 billion in local district funds.

Higher education campuses would receive $2.5 billion.

Key features are attached to the funding--rare in legislative bond packages but insisted upon by Wilson and Republican lawmakers who called for reform of what they termed runaway school costs.

Among the provisions:

* Local school districts would be required to match, dollar for dollar, state funds for classroom construction.

* To qualify for the state's half of the money, schools would be limited to grants based on the anticipated cost per pupil of campus expansion.

* Limits would be dictated by state law on the amounts that school districts can charge developers, a practice now controlled at the local level. Developers are required to help pay for school expansion because of the added enrollment caused by new homes.

* A series of new controls would be imposed to cut the cost of school construction, from cheaper architectural fees to elimination of costs tacked on after a construction project gets underway.

As stories spread of dilapidated classrooms and rising enrollments overcrowding schools, the Legislature struggled for at least two years to agree on the terms for a state rescue but got bogged down in partisan or house rivalries.

With a Thursday deadline looming for the measure to make the ballot, it sailed through the Senate easily, 32 to 6.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) called approval of the bond proposal "the crown jewel of the [legislative] year." He noted that the funds would especially benefit Los Angeles schools--to the tune of about $1 billion--if approved by voters.

Some of the benefits for Los Angeles Unified School District:

* For modernization of classrooms, the state would meet 80% of the cost.

* Year-round schools could qualify for class-size reduction funding previously withheld from them.

* Overcrowded schools would have access to a special $500-million fund to buy adjoining land to expand campuses.

* The per-pupil grant amount to determine how much a school can obtain from the state would rise in the case of schools that have nowhere to expand except by building multistory classrooms.

"I got a deal for urban schools and poor kids," a proud Villaraigosa said, that has been absent from any previous state bond package for education.

Schools in general, however, will suffer from what Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Assn., called "short-term gain for schools at the expense of long-term gain for developers."

The developer component, the most contentious of the bond bill, caps fees that schools can charge the builders at $1.93 per square foot of the new homes they build.

The amount can go up depending on the availability of local funds and on whether the state runs out of bond money, but those costs would still be less than developers often are required to pay now by schools and city councils.

According to one source close to the bond negotiations, the new rules for developers were heavily influenced by powerful conservative lobbyists and political contributors.

Still, said the liberal Villaraigosa, although "some communities will be left strapped" for school building funds, there would have been no bond measure without the restrictions that Wilson and Republican lawmakers demanded. Twice before in recent months, school bond bills failed in the Assembly in the face of GOP insistence that more reforms were needed.

On Tuesday, conservative GOP opposition was still apparent, if not effective.

Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), an outspoken foe of borrowing by selling bonds, said, "The rape of the taxpayer is complete." Haynes argued that taxpayers got shortchanged by the recently enacted tax cut from the $4.4-billion budget surplus and that none of the surplus had been earmarked for school construction.

Local school officials welcomed the prospect of more cash to build and renovate schools.

"We like it," said Ronald Prescott, a deputy superintendent of the 681,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

Prescott said the district would seek to use about $900 million available from a local bond measure to obtain state matching funds for school construction.

In Orange County, Capistrano Unified School District officials also are eager for an infusion of state school money.

Capistrano Supt. James A. Fleming, who has seen his enrollment balloon from 25,000 students in 1991 to 42,000 students expected this fall, said he has three new campuses ready to be built immediately if state money becomes available. Another seven are in the works.

"We desperately need the money to construct new schools for a growing population and to renovate older schools," Fleming said.

Times staff writer Nick Anderson in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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