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Schools Work to Cement Their Bonds

Four districts doing all they can to boost measures to build campuses and repair aging ones. There's a fine line of legality.

October 06, 1999|REBECCA HARRIS and LISA RICHARDSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From cocktail parties to voter registration blitzes, the push is on as three Orange County school districts--Huntington Beach Union, Santa Ana Unified and Capistrano Unified--urge residents to vote for millions of dollars in bonds to repair old schools and build new ones.

A fourth, Irvine Unified, is seeking voter approval of a parcel tax to salvage that district's arts, music and science programs.

Capistrano Unified School District officials are depending on persuasion at school events to push a bond measure that would provide $166 million toward renovating the district's aging schools.

Last week at elementary schools, PTA members and parent volunteers plugged the measure at Back-to-School Night, made voter registration forms available to parents and fielded questions.

If passed Nov. 2, the measure would match $65 million in local funds with $101 million in state money. The measure asks residents in non-Mello Roos areas of the district to pay about $15 annually per $100,000 of assessed value on their homes.

The revenue would be used to build four schools to ease overcrowding and to make repairs on aging schools--whose sites are up to 30 years old.

For Santa Ana Unified, passage of a $145-million bond would bring an additional $184.6 million from the state. The money would be used to build two high schools and 11 elementary schools, and to expand Valley High School to accommodate 600 additional students.

That district also has informed parents of the upcoming vote at Back-to-School Night and special informational meetings, where hundreds have turned out.

"There is a high level of awareness in the Santa Ana community about our facility crisis," said Michael Vail, senior director of facilities planning for the district. "And it is a crisis--anyone who drives by our sites can see all the portable classrooms there."

Santa Ana's bond effort, called Children and Education First, is co-chaired by the PTA president and the head of the local chamber of commerce. Fund-raising efforts have ranged from distributing pamphlets at Back-to-School Night to after-work mixers.

Promoting in both districts has been done by unpaid volunteers, but occasionally the line has been blurred between expressing personal opinion and campaigning by district personnel.

No Public Funds or Personnel Allowed

Educators must be careful. Volunteers may distribute information advocating the bond's approval, but paid employees can't--even though the school board supports the measure.

Teachers, principals and other district employees paid with public tax dollars for their time said they are simply raising voter awareness, not supporting one position over another.

As long as district employees are not spending public funds on assembling or distributing information advocating one stance, or passing out the voter registration forms themselves, the promotion is legal, according to the secretary of state's office and the Fair Political Practices Commission.

"In general, public funds or public resources may be used impartially to educate or inform citizens about a ballot measure," the FPPC says in a statement posted on its Web site. "But if a communication directly or indirectly urges an election result, the agency responsible for sending it may be required by the Political Reform Act to disclose the source and amount of money used for printing and mailing. Violation of the disclosure law may result in fines. Other state laws prohibit use of public funds for campaign purposes."

Sometimes, though, educators come close to the line. At Back-to-School Night at John Malcom Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, volunteers passed out the voter registration forms, but Principal Lois Anderson also took the opportunity to make a speech highlighting the districtwide infrastructure improvements that would occur if residents approve the proposed measure and urged them to vote.

"I had a short parent meeting before and after classroom presentations about the bond," Anderson said. "We can't tell 'em, 'You have to go out and vote yes on this bond,' but we can say, 'If it passes, this is what will happen, and the school board is really hoping you'll exercise your right to vote.' "

Although employees can't advocate approval of the bond, they are expected to assist those who can--PTA members and parent volunteers, Anderson said.

"The hope is that we will cooperate within the bounds of what's legally acceptable: support volunteer committees, set up tables at Back-to-School Night, display the poster that gives information, encourage parents to vote," she said, adding that she hasn't received any negative feedback from parents about the push for votes.

In Santa Ana, the business community, which has long maintained strong ties with the school district, has been integral in pushing the bond measure. The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously to back the bond after the district agreed to establish an oversight committee and create a reserve fund for future capital expenses.

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