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ELECTION '99

Hoping Voters Are Stirred, Not Shaken, by School Bonds

Multimillion-dollar measures in Capistrano, Huntington Beach, Santa Ana go to ballot this month.

November 01, 1999|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The communities are different, but their educational straits are similar: campuses crammed with portable buildings, electrical wiring too feeble to support the latest technology, sagging infrastructure, and heating and cooling systems on the fritz.

It's a lousy setting for teaching kids, school officials in the Capistrano, Huntington Beach and Santa Ana districts decided. So all three this month are seeking multimillion-dollar school bonds to repair aging campuses and build new ones. The Capistrano and Santa Ana measures are on Tuesday's ballot; Huntington Beach's election is a week later.

And in Irvine, residents on Tuesday will decide whether to tax themselves for schools. For this high-achieving district, the issue isn't repairs and construction but sealing a deficit and preserving rich science, arts and music programs.

With four of Orange County's largest districts asking for voter support, it's going to be a bellwether November for local schools, said Supt. John F. Dean of the Orange County Department of Education.

"This will tell the entire county the degree that the public respects and appreciates public schools," he said. "These boards of education are asking the public's help to return our schools to first-class condition. The need is desperate."

If the measures pass, they would continue a pro-bond trend in usually tax-wary Orange County. After an almost two-decade drought, two bonds have passed in the last year, and several other districts are eyeing their own measures.

While the requirement for two-thirds passage is daunting, good economic times and an emphasis on education have made voters favorable to bonds. And the 1998 passage of a $9.2-billion statewide measure makes local bonds all the more enticing because the state gives preferences to districts with local matching funds.

"When we have an opportunity locally to be able to get a . . . match from the state, it would be a tragedy for this school board not to bring this issue to the public to vote on," said Capistrano Unified President Marlene Draper. "It's too good for this community to miss this chance."

The three bond measures enjoy support from a wide cross-section of their communities, from labor and business groups to PTAs and elected leaders. No opponents have emerged to the Capistrano Unified School District bond. A few critics have weighed in in Huntington Beach and Santa Ana, primarily opposed to new taxes or possible school district waste.

By state law, bond money cannot be used on salaries, but only on new facilities or improvements. To ensure that any bond money is well spent, citizen oversight panels would be formed in all three districts. Additionally, officials vow to set aside some bond money to pay for any future repairs.

As election day draws near, the campaigning is heating up. Volunteers will flood phone lines and knock on doors, coaxing bond-friendly voters to hit the polls.

In South County's fast-growing Capistrano district, voters are considering a $65-million bond measure that could leverage another $101 million from the state.

The money would be used to build two elementary, one middle and one high school to accommodate enrollment growth. (New schools necessitated by burgeoning developments have been paid for by another funding mechanism.) The bond would also help add classrooms to replace portable ones, fix aging plumbing and heating systems, and add computer wiring.

"We've done quite a bit with absentee ballots, trying to encourage people to vote by absentee so we can count on their votes," Draper said. "The massive effort will be on Election Day. We plan on over 200 volunteers calling for three hours to make sure people do get out to the polls and vote. It's a real grass-roots effort, from moms and dads in PTA to staff to people with no children in the schools."

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One of the district's main goals, if the bond passes, will be shrinking crowded schools down to size. Enrollment would be trimmed from as high as 3,000 to a more manageable 2,000 at high schools, for example.

Santa Ana Unified similarly struggles with crowding and an enrollment that mushrooms faster than the district can build schools. Since 1979, the district has gained at least 1,400 students annually--a pace that has quickened in the last two years.

The district is seeking a $145-million bond, which could be matched by up to $185 million from the state, to build 11 elementary and two high schools, decrease class sizes, add electrical wiring and add libraries to some schools. Also planned are expansions of Valley High and Carr Intermediate schools.

"I think there is a very high awareness in Santa Ana of our facilities crisis," said Mike Vail, the district's assistant superintendent for facilities planning. "It's just a question of whether people think this is the solution or not. I'm reminded of a quote from [former President] Reagan, 'If not now, when? If not us, who?' I think that's the question before voters in Santa Ana."

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