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SUNDAY REPORT

Speed Beats Need in State School Funding

With no system for comparing districts' space problems, those that aren't growing can get millions while many with ballooning enrollments get nothing, a Times analysis shows.

October 29, 2000|DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

At a time of enormous overcrowding in public schools across California, billions of dollars in state construction money has been distributed erratically in a process based on how quickly districts can build, rather than how badly they need the money.

As a result, California officials have handed out more than $6.8 billion in school construction funds over the last decade, yet have failed to deliver a single dollar to more than 100 of the state's fastest-growing school districts, a Times analysis has found.

At schools in many of those districts, a thousand children are crammed into space intended for 500, lunch periods are staggered for crowd control and playgrounds have been gobbled up by bungalows.

During the same 10 years, many districts that had little growth, or had even lost enrollment, received $225 million for new schools, multipurpose centers and gymnasiums.

A Times analysis of school bond apportionments reveals a capricious system that produces great variations among districts because the state does not have a process for comparing the needs of different districts. Instead, it has dispensed funds to those that are quickest to obtain land and prepare construction plans.

That practice is particularly problematic because state funds have fallen so far short of what would be needed to keep up with rising school enrollments statewide.

In a fast-developing Santa Clarita Valley suburb, the Sulphur Springs Elementary School District has gotten no money and hasn't built a new school since 1988 because of trouble acquiring land.

At Valley View Elementary, a year-round school, portable bungalows are lined up like barracks. The upper-grade bungalows, set down the hill on the athletic field, do not have running water. The office copier room has been converted into a classroom and students who are taking a class during their four-week break meet in a long room formerly used as a hallway.

"We're just full," said the school's beleaguered plant manager, Dave Hill. "We are bursting at the seams."

Somehow, teachers remain upbeat.

"It would be optimum if we had running water so when we do a project we wouldn't have to carry water in a bucket," fifth-grade teacher Betty Andersen said. "But you know what--we do just fine."

Fifty miles away, in the southeastern corner of Los Angeles County, Downey Unified has seen enrollment increase 43% in the last decade. It needs at least two more schools for its 21,000 students, but it also has gotten no state funds. The district has been unable to apply for state help because it has not yet been able to acquire land.

The district's Rio Hondo Elementary, in a post-World War II subdivision that is suddenly swelling with new families, was built for about 500 students. Today, 954 attend, taking lessons in portable classrooms that have multiplied across former playing fields.

The cafeteria is so small that Principal Dolores Goble has broken the lunch schedule into six shifts, one for each grade level. Even stretched out from 11:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., that leaves only 30 minutes per group.

"We really have to push them: 'Eat! Eat! Eat!' " Goble said.

Meanwhile, the Indian Diggings Elementary School District, in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, received $538,000 to build a multipurpose room and kitchen. Enrollment in the district's one school declined from 32 to 25 during the decade. Having met minimum eligibility standards, the Indian Diggings district moved quickly to get in line for the money.

The state does not keep track of how different districts fare in the competition for money or whether the funds are distributed equitably. To find that out, The Times analyzed 10 years of computer records on enrollment and school bond apportionments. The records show that bond money is distributed unevenly among districts, with no clear patterns. Winners and losers could be found in urban, suburban and rural areas, and in districts of all sizes.

The funds were distributed to 486 districts, slightly fewer than half the state's 987. Funding varied widely--from $1.4 million per new student in Woodland Union Elementary District in Tulare County to $29 in Alameda County's Piedmont Unified.

About 502 districts received no construction funds at all. Although most of those had little or no growth, 109 grew 30% or more.

In Los Angeles County, 10 districts got no money, despite having enrollment growth of 30% or more. Not all were hardship cases. A few didn't need the money, some didn't qualify and others simply chose not to apply.

But many were forced to rely on local taxes, borrow against operating funds, tap developers and sometimes plead for assistance from city governments to add new classrooms. When those measures fell short, they filled existing campuses with bungalows, converted schools to year-round calendars or put students on buses.

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