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A Plan to Ease Passage of School Bonds

Some districts--especially poor ones--have trouble getting the necessary two-thirds vote. The initiative, opposed by taxation foes, would lower the bar to 50%.


Her daughter is in second grade and already complains of crowded playgrounds and being rushed through lunch. Rodriguez campaigned hard for the bond, then could not vote for it.

"It was very frustrating," she said.

Only a third of Santa Maria's population is registered to vote, and those people tend to be white, middle-class, conservative and older.

An additional hurdle for the district has been the fancy new school administration building, irreverently dubbed "Tissier's Towers" for the former superintendent who approved it.

"It was needed, but unfortunately there was also at that time a need for additional schools," said Joe Olivera, president of the Santa Barbara Taxpayers' Assn. and a longtime Santa Maria resident. "It just didn't set well."

Such symbols of excess or poor judgment exist in every district around the state. Proposition 26 supporters have tried to ward off the impact of such poor spending decisions with a requirement that local bond campaigns itemize planned projects and do two annual audits.

The initiative has nonetheless met heavy resistance in Los Angeles County, where only 39% favored it in a Public Policy Institute survey. Poll director Mark Baldassare suspects that even in liberal-leaning Los Angeles, voters remain angry about the $200-million Belmont Learning Complex, the doomed downtown high school built on a contaminated site, although that was not paid for with bond money.

"People are looking for information that would help them be comfortable with loosening the strings and that situation doesn't help them," Baldassare said.

State Matching Funds at Stake

Pressure on California's school districts to raise money increased after voters passed Proposition 1A in 1998. That $9.2-billion initiative provided $6.7 billion in state school bonds, but to qualify for a share districts had to match the funds.

For those that have tried for bonds and lost, the state bond offers $1 billion in hardship funds, of which about a third has been awarded.

Santa Maria is among those still waiting to hear how much hardship help it will get. But even if the district gets its full allotment, that would take care of last year's needs, not the 484 additional students who showed up this year or the 500 more expected next fall.

"If we continue to grow by 500 more kids a year, we'd need to build a new school every 18 months," said Cynthia L. Clark, the district's assistant superintendent for business services. Clark paused, her eyes widening. "That's a scary thought," she said.

Last year, in Santa Maria's latest effort to pass a bond, the vote was frustratingly close.

Volunteers from each school canvassed their own neighborhoods. There were precinct walks most weekends and neon-pink fliers to hand out at public events.

"If we're asking people for money, we have to ask them face to face," said campaign chairman David Riloquio, a Santa Maria native and father of two elementary school children.

Then it was June 8, and the votes came rolling in. Riloquio was at the county registrar's office, watching the tally. Shortly before 9 p.m., he relayed the final word via cell phone to campaign headquarters: The bond had gained 64.3% of the vote, 151 votes short of passing.

"Just 100 more homes!" he laments today.


School Bond Success

Here are success rates for school issues in California from 1986-99

Students in district

Type of district

*Source: EdSource, January 2000

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