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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES

Needed in Our Schools: Facilities-Crisis Reduction

Enrollment has risen dramatically in the county and nation, and classroom construction is desperately needed.

July 26, 1998|MIKE VAIL | Mike Vail is president of the Cal-Fed Infrastructure Coalition and senior director of Facilities Planning & Governmental Relations for the Santa Ana Unified School District

In his State of the Union address, President Clinton announced a major federal commitment to school facility financing. School districts throughout the nation, including those in Orange County, are facing a facilities crisis.

A combination of factors, including record student enrollment growth, deteriorating buildings and lack of funding for educational technology, has fueled it. And it threatens our ability to prepare today's students for the workplace of the 21st century.

The national enrollment growth trend has been mirrored in Orange County. In 1986, countywide enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade was 337,100. In 1990, it had reached 368,226. By 1996, it had grown to an all-time high of 434,420 students.

This enrollment growth has resulted in a corresponding need for new classrooms.

Santa Ana Unified, the county's largest school district, has experienced long-term student increases that began in 1979. Over the last 18 years, the district's enrollment has almost doubled, growing from 28,700 to nearly 54,000. For the last five years, the largest single grade level in Santa Ana has been kindergarten. It has been especially challenging for the district to implement Gov. Pete Wilson's class-size reduction program in grades K-3.

Statewide school construction bond measures are very undependable. The Legislature sometimes fails to place a bond measure on a statewide ballot, and the voters sometimes reject these measures. Since 1993, only one statewide school construction bond measure has been approved. The state currently has no funds available to pay for new projects.

Local school districts in California have the ability to present bond measures. However, they require a two-thirds vote, making approval extremely difficult. California is one of only four states that has a two-thirds vote requirement.

Because of the lack of construction funding, California districts have turned to other methods, including use of year-round schedules and portable classrooms. Santa Ana Unified is currently using more than 600 portable classrooms--the equivalent of 27 elementary schools. More than 28% of Santa Ana Unified's classroom capacity is provided by portable classrooms. They have an impact on a school's core facilities, such as restrooms and food service areas. They encroach on our small play fields, and they are more expensive to maintain.

In 1995, the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that one-third of public schools, attended by approximately 14 million students, needed "extensive repair or replacement of one or more buildings." Fewer than half have sufficient technology infrastructure.

In Santa Ana Unified, 21 of 45 schools are more than 30 years old. Ten are in need of major renovation. The condition of existing classrooms is important because research shows that facilities affect learning.

California is trying to do something. On July 13, the state Assembly approved a $9-billion school construction bond measure for the November statewide ballot. It is expected that the state Senate will also support this bond measure. Wilson and the Legislature will have significantly increased the amount of funding available for K-12 maintenance programs.

We recognize that school construction is primarily a state and local responsibility. But our coalition feels that California's rising student enrollments and overcrowded conditions are creating pressures that must be addressed by all levels of government.

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