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California and the West

Bond Measures Will Fuel School Building Boom

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


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.

The Los Angeles Unified School District got a $2.4-billion bond passed in April 1997. San Diego City Unified voters this month approved $1.5 billion in bonds for school repairs and new construction. Even in tax-averse Orange County, Buena Park voters agreed to borrow $13.8 million to upgrade their schools.

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, a school administrator in Fresno County 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."

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 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.

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.

Consider Cal State Dominguez Hills. The modest, 12,000-student campus in Carson, near the intersection of the San Diego and Harbor freeways, was built in the 1960s during a boom era for public education. But the last state-funded building there, a gymnasium, opened in 1978.

With the new state bond money, Dominguez Hills officials expect to break ground soon on a $34-million, three-story complex including a computer center, student services hub and administrative headquarters. The administration now takes up the fifth floor of the main library.

The new building will become the largest on campus and is projected to be the largest single investment this school year for public higher education in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

"It's extraordinarily significant," said Herbert L. Carter, interim president of Cal State Dominguez Hills. "This campus has been here 30 years. We are still occupying buildings that were temporary buildings when we moved here 30 years ago. It turned out to be '30-year temporary.' The quality of facilities that are common to other university campuses are finally beginning to be built here."

But this story--like many others unfolding across California--isn't just about steel girders and concrete. Building a college or school, educators note, represents something more than widening a road or laying a sewer pipe.

As Carter put it: "It also means an awful lot for this community. People will feel, I am certain, more kindly toward this institution. And it will help us in the attraction of students."

Districts Face Explosive Growth

School districts, of course, don't have to attract new students. They get them in droves every year as the population rises. With 5.7 million students, California's K-12 system is the nation's largest. Enrollment is likely to surpass 6 million in the next five years. Yet educators have complained repeatedly in recent years that construction and repairs have not kept pace. Stories abound at elementary and secondary schools of leaky roofs, rotting portable classrooms, overloaded utilities, clogged bathrooms and classrooms spilling into cafeterias and libraries.

Those complaints should now diminish, even if the new money fails to solve every trouble in a system with 8,000 campuses--some in deep urban poverty, some in suburban prosperity and still others in rural isolation.

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