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Bond Measures to Fuel a School Building Boom

Education: Voters statewide have approved spending for construction and improvement at levels not seen since the 1960s.

November 16, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's schools and universities, long confined to aging and crowded campuses that became potent symbols of the decline of public education, are about to undergo a hard-hat invasion unmatched since the 1960s.

Not only did voters statewide approve a $9.2-billion bond measure--the largest in California history--on Nov. 3, but voters in local elections have also approved a slew of new spending. In all, roughly $18 billion worth of school construction bonds have won approval in California in less than two years.

Even in tax-averse Orange County, Buena Park voters agreed to borrow $13.8 million to upgrade their schools. And administrators in several other districts, including Laguna Beach Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Huntington Beach Union and Anaheim City School District, said they too may ask taxpayers next year to spend millions to renovate their aging campuses.

Voters in Los Angeles and San Diego also recently passed school bond measures.

The consensus behind the movement to rebuild the state's education systems is striking. Each of the local measures required at least two-thirds voter approval. The statewide Proposition 1A, needing only a simple majority, won with a lopsided 63% of the vote. It passed in 42 out of 58 counties, sweeping the Bay Area and Southern California.

No doubt the trend owes much to the revived state economy. But educators say it also signals that voters understand public education requires public investment.

After years of school neglect, "citizens and parents and legislators understand that there is a need to make some improvements in what we attempt to provide children," said Terry Bradley, who chairs a statewide group of educators and builders called the Coalition for Adequate School Housing. "And there's a will to get that done."

In Orange County's largest school district, the 50,000-student Santa Ana Unified, 47 schools need a total of $115 million in upgrades, repairs and renovations. Annual enrollment increases have exceeded 2,000 students every year since 1979, forcing administrators to rely on an estimated 700 portable classrooms.

Because the district doesn't have the money to expand schools or build new ones, it cannot fully implement the highly popular state program that limits 20 students to a classroom in the early grades.

"When the education program is driven by the facilities situation, that is bad," said Mike Vail, an assistant superintendent. "We hope that some of the need will be met by Proposition 1A."

The new state law will reimburse 50% to 80% of the cost of three projects: a $2-million modernization of Carr Intermediate School; construction of a $2.1-million "all-portable" school for grades 3 through 5; and an $800,000 expansion of Sierra Intermediate School.

"For so long we've been told we have to wait, we have to wait," said Lucinda Clear, the principal of Carr Intermediate, which was built in 1955. "So suddenly we're going ahead and we just can't believe it."

From universities to one-room schoolhouses, education officials throughout the state are angling for a piece of the construction bonanza. Speed pays: With so much money to be spent, a glut of projects could jack up construction prices.

The school board in Capistrano Unified--one of Orange County's fastest-growing and most overcrowded districts--voted in late October to begin the construction bid process for three new elementary schools and one middle school, in anticipation of Proposition 1A's victory at the polls.

"We were ready to advertise those bids on Nov. 4,' said Jacqueline Price, the special assistant to Supt. James A. Fleming.

The University of California, due to receive about $840 million over four years from the state bond measure, plans to move forward with new health science facilities in Los Angeles and seismic upgrades in Berkeley, Irvine, Davis, Riverside and San Francisco. The measure will also help launch a long-awaited 10th UC campus at Merced in the San Joaquin Valley.

UC Irvine will use Proposition 1A funding to increase class offerings in science, one of its most popular academic areas. Construction begins in August 2000 on a $47-million Natural Sciences building for undergraduate students studying biology and chemistry.

Janet Mason, the director of capital planning at UCI, said the 124,000-square-foot building is "pivotal" to the future of the campus, where enrollment continues to climb. Biology is the second most popular major on campus and both science and engineering majors are required to take chemistry classes.

The California Community Colleges and California State University systems, each expecting a share about equal to UC's, are planning make-overs for many campuses often neglected in the state budget.

Of the $17 million allocated to the Coast Community College District, the bulk of the state money, $14.4 million, will pay for a new fine arts building with classrooms and performance space at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Construction is scheduled to begin in November 1999.

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