Concern that last year's $2.4-billion bond measure may not cover a growing list of school repairs has touched off a grim debate over whether to fix worn-out Los Angeles schools or build new ones to relieve overcrowding.
Whichever side prevails, thousands of students will be the losers, by having either to endure broken-down bathrooms and gyms or spend hours riding buses to schools that will have less and less room to seat them.
Los Angeles school officials are counting on nearly $1 billion from Proposition BB to finance an ambitious building program. Doubtful that middle-class voters would ever approve more bonds for new schools in poor neighborhoods, they believe that this is their last opportunity.
But the taxpayers committee that oversees the bond has warned that half that money earmarked for new construction should be held in reserve until every necessary repair has been paid for.
The disagreement has intensified as it has become clear that officials underestimated both the number of repairs needed and their cost. The dilemma has been aggravated by the continued inability of the bond project managers to come up with an exact cost.
The long-simmering dispute is coming to a showdown as district officials prepare to ask permission to buy four sites for new schools, using BB funds. They must seek approval from the BB committee before they can go to the Board of Education.
After agreeing to spend about $200 million on a few new schools, the BB oversight committee has signaled that it plans to clamp down.
"When they come in with new schools, we're going to be saying 'no' now," said committee Chairman Steve Soboroff, who has scheduled an appearance before the Board of Education next month to deliver the message in person.
The committee's powers are only advisory, but the board has yet to spend any BB money without its blessing.
Members of the committee, which was established by the April 1997 bond measure, say they have a pact with the voters to ensure that every existing school is brought up to standard.
"You have to look at the promises made and you have to look at the trade-offs," said committee Vice Chairman Timothy Lynch. "You have students sitting in existing schools where the bathrooms don't work and you're saying they have to continue living under that condition so someone else in another part of town can have a new school. The promise didn't say that."
Proponents of new construction complain of a geographical bias that allows committee members to see only half the promise.
Proposition BB was sold to voters partly by a two-tiered campaign that promised air conditioning and repairs in the Valley and Westside, while promoting repairs and new classrooms in the heavily crowded Eastside and South-Central Los Angeles.
School board President Victoria Castro said her constituents in the heavily overcrowded Eastside were promised that BB would bring their children back to local schools.
"It's not going to do me any good having a new football field with lights if I still have to bus kids out of that school," Castro said. "Neighborhood [schools] are my first priority."
District officials contend that mandatory busing has a negative effect on everyone. Students who are forced to ride buses perform more poorly on standardized tests than their neighbors who go to school near home. And schools that receive large numbers of children from out of the area lose neighborhood support.
$500 Million Set Aside
Unmoved, the committee signaled its readiness for a showdown in its July quarterly report by moving $500 million from new construction to repairs in an outline of BB allocations.
The possibility of losing half a billion dollars sent a chill down the spines of district officials who had seen in Proposition BB a golden opportunity to correct some of the past ills of overcrowding while also preparing for even more growth to come.
District demographers forecast that the current enrollment of 681,000 will grow by 80,000 over 10 years.
Without new schools, the district will be forced to bus more than the 13,000 students who now travel outside their neighborhoods.
Besides busing more students, the district would be forced to place more schools on year-round schedules and maintain upper-grade class size at the higher levels that were instituted when the classroom crunch began in the early 1990s.
The squeeze would be tightest at the high schools because of a large enrollment bulge now in the primary grades will reach high school by 2006.
The hardest-hit areas would be the Eastside and South-Central Los Angeles, but no part of the city would escape the impact. Several West Valley high schools also face severe overcrowding, and those that have seats available would receive more and more transfer students.
With the optimism engendered by BB, the Board of Education instructed district staff to write a master plan that would give every student the option of attending a neighborhood school, reduce class size to the pre-1990 level and accommodate new growth.