A Los Angeles judge ruled Thursday that state officials are violating the law by giving school construction funds to districts that apply first, rather than considering which ones have the greatest need for new classrooms.
Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe ordered the state to revise its system for distributing about $1.4 billion remaining from a 1998 school bond, and indicated that he is prepared to issue an injunction if they don't act soon enough.
Yaffe said the Legislature made clear it wants the bond money apportioned according to a priority system based on need. He said allocation should not be "on a first-come, first-served basis, even if the result is to slow down all the allocation of funds."
He ordered an attorney for the state to report to him by Oct. 6 on how the state plans to better balance the needs of school districts.
Attorneys who filed the lawsuit in March viewed the ruling as a victory in their efforts to ensure that a greater share of the bond money goes to urban districts.
It will be impossible to determine how much the ruling might help the Los Angeles Unified School District's construction program until the state adopts a specific priority system.
The lawsuit contends that rules for applying for bond money discriminate against poor and minority students in urban areas. The state requires districts to obtain land and approval of the state architect before applying. Urban districts face many more obstacles to acquiring land, including the necessity of using eminent domain, moving residents and dealing with pollution.
Although not a party to the case, the Los Angeles school district has supported it as a critical element in its plans to build classrooms for 85,000 new students expected over the next decade.
Early this year, it became clear that the district would capture only a pittance of the $6.7 billion set aside in the bond for public school construction. Los Angeles school officials have been unable to prepare applications for more than a handful of projects, while other school districts around the state have submitted applications that far exceed the capacity of the fund.
Several suburban districts have lent their support to the state, but Yaffe declined to allow them to join the case as friends of the court.
During the first hearing in June, Yaffe brushed aside a request that he immediately halt distribution of the bond funds.
He said it would be "grossly unfair to limit the construction of new schools throughout the state to the pace at which the [Los Angeles district] can arrange for the construction of new schools."
At a second hearing last month, Yaffe said he was inclined to think the state was handing out the bond money unfairly, but took no action after an attorney for the state told him proposals for a better system were being drafted.
The State Allocation Board, which distributes the bond money, considered three proposals at its meeting Wednesday night, but took no action. Two members were absent, and others said they wanted more time to weigh the complex alternatives.
Two of those proposals, submitted by state officials, provided alternate mechanisms for reserving some of the funds for school districts with severe needs. The Los Angeles school district submitted the third, which proposed that money be set aside for projects it could launch by June 2002.
Yaffe's ruling on Thursday did not suggest a preference for any of the plans, but said the state has been violating the law by failing to put any priority system into effect, even while distributing more than half the money.
Yaffe said a priority system should go into effect as soon as the state "becomes aware that the funds available from the bond issue will not be sufficient to fund all projects that the board will approve."
Deputy Atty. Gen. Christopher C. Foley said the state had intended to start a priority system when applications in hand exceed the money remaining. That point was expected near the end of the year. In the meantime, first-come, first-served was the rule.