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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Cutting Through the Campaign Fog Obscuring Prop. 39

October 30, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — If anybody's confused about Proposition 39--and polling indicates plenty are--it's no wonder.

Backers have fuzzed up the initiative's purpose in their spiels--this really isn't about "accountability"--and opponents have shamelessly hyperbolized.

Prop. 39 simply is about making it easier to pass local school construction bonds and, yes, raise property taxes--by a maximum $100 per average California homeowner. It would do this by lowering the vote requirement from a two-thirds majority to 55%.

But this is what Prop. 39 really is about:

It's about the elementary school students in the San Joaquin Valley southeast of Fresno who must eat their lunches outside under a canopy--even in the wintry tule fog or rain--because the cafeteria has been converted into a classroom.

Sure, the kids catch colds, says Jean Fetterhoff, superintendent of Kings Canyon school district. "It bothers me, but we're just overcrowded."

Ten times in four decades the district has tried to pass a bond issue. Each time it has failed. Always, the proposal has received overwhelming approval, but never two-thirds. In 1995, one measure fell just two votes short. "A heartbreaker," Fetterhoff recalls.

The political dilemma, she says, is that this is a sprawling farm district of large land holdings and the affluent growers--some of whom send their children to private schools--fight against higher property taxes. Two-thirds of the public school students are Latinos and many of their farm worker parents can't vote because they're not citizens.

"We're shoulder-to-shoulder at our schools," she says, "and it's not a healthy environment for the children."

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Prop. 39 also is about the middle-class students who must arrive at Valencia High School in northern L.A. County by 6:30 each morning to get a math or drafting or P.E. class. "We've reached the maximum use of our facilities," says Principal Paul Priesz.

The school is only seven years old, but already it's a third over student capacity. It has buried two practice fields under portable classrooms. Within five years, Priesz says, there'll be night classes.

The district, William S. Hart, attempted a bond issue in June, but it failed by 12 votes--a "failure" with 66.1% of the vote.

"If somebody running for president got 66% of the vote you'd call it a landslide," notes the principal. "It just seems patently unfair. It boggles my mind."

And Prop. 39 is about the fourth-graders at Sunset Hills Elementary School north of San Diego who are taught by a California "teacher of the year," Karen O'Connor. Her passion is teaching children to write.

That's best done with a word processor for these computer-wise kids, she says. "They really get fired up." A big screen also is invaluable for teaching a class about editing.

But the school only has three big screens and each classroom normally has just one word processor. Moreover, there isn't adequate wiring for high-tech learning.

The district--Poway--proposed a bond issue last November. But it got "only" a 64% vote.

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All this worries some Silicon Valley high-tech moguls. They fret about the education of California's next work force. So they're pouring nearly $30 million into the Prop. 39 campaign and are outspending their opponents--the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.--by 7 to 1.

The Times Poll last week found Prop. 39 enjoying strong support among likely voters, 55% to 32%. But a survey just before the March primary also showed the measure's predecessor--Prop. 26--ahead by 12 points. It lost by 2.6% as the undecided eventually voted "no."

Many believed schools would just squander the bond money. So Prop. 39 strategists--mainly Gov. Gray Davis' political team--have pitched the new measure's "accountability" features that are contained in separate bills: tax caps, citizen oversight and audits.

Consequently, a lot of people don't know what Prop. 39 is about. When the Public Policy Institute of California recently asked voters whether the initiative would make it "easier or more difficult to pass local school bonds," only 38% answered "easier."

Meanwhile, opponents are grossly exaggerating Prop. 39's tax impact. They're claiming it could ultimately double property taxes because schools might pile on a new bond proposal every election. Illogical.

But Prop. 39 is not about campaign distortions. It's about preparing the next generation and--no escaping it--property taxes.

It's about allowing children to eat their lunches inside, out of the rain--and come to school when it's light outside. About the observation of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr: "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

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