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Tech Leaders Funding Plan to Ease School Bond Passage

Jobs: Nearly all the $13 million raised so far comes from an industry with a chronic need for highly trained workers.

September 11, 2000|KAREN ALEXANDER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Concerned about California's future labor force attending schools that are badly overcrowded or in bleak disrepair, high-tech executives have quietly poured millions of dollars into a campaign for a November ballot initiative that would make it easier for communities to build new schools and upgrade facilities.

Backers of Proposition 39, which would lower the vote threshold needed to pass local school bonds from a two-thirds majority to 55%, say they have raised more than $13 million.

State records show that almost all of those funds have come from technology leaders and tech-wealthy venture capitalists, largely from Silicon Valley but also from Southern California, particularly Orange County.

In recent years, individuals in the tech set have increasingly been flexing their political muscle on state education issues--from Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz's efforts to eliminate bilingual education in schools to venture capitalist Tim Draper's $20-million contribution to another November ballot measure that would provide parents with taxpayer-paid vouchers.

The tech push behind Proposition 39, though, marks a more concerted effort across a wider sphere of industry leaders statewide.

Although several tech executives were big donors to a similar ballot measure in March to lower the vote threshold to 50%, that effort was led by the California Teachers Assn. Proposition 26 failed by 2 percentage points.

Proposition 39, called the School Improvement and Accountability Act, also has the support of labor, other business executives, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and his Republican predecessor Pete Wilson.

The campaign expects to raise more than $30 million--far more than opponents of the initiative and $5 million more than Proposition 26 garnered, according to both sides of the Proposition 26 and 39 campaigns.

California may be the paragon of the New Economy, but tech executives statewide have raised growing concerns about the state's ability to meet future work force needs when many children are attending school in facilities without enough electricity for air conditioning, let alone for high-speed computer connections.

"It doesn't do any good to have a great World Wide Web business if 40% of 8-year-olds can't read," said Bay Area venture capitalist John Doerr, who with his wife, Anne, has doled out $4 million in interest-free loans to the Proposition 39 campaign. His Menlo Park firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, gave another $1 million, as did one of his partners, Vinod Khosla.

Other Silicon Valley donors include Cisco Systems Inc. chief executive John Chambers, who gave $250,000 and matched it with a gift from his company. Reed Hastings, a member of the state Board of Education and chief executive of Netflix.com, of Los Gatos, ponied up $1 million.

Southern California's tech support for the campaign is being led by Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Samueli, Dwight Decker, chief executive of Conexant Systems Inc. and Ted Smith, founder of FileNet Corp. Although wireless technology leader Qualcomm in San Diego and a few other Southern California firms have given money, most of the Southland's financial support for Proposition 39 comes from Orange County, where tech leaders have been quicker to organize on this issue than those in Los Angeles County.

Supporters have a radio campaign underway and say they will soon launch a slew of television ads. So far, the measure's opponents, backed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., have raised about $1.2 million, according to taxpayers association chairman Jon Coupal.

"The technology community in general is trying to figure out how to wield its political clout and power," said Sheri Annis, a spokesperson for the Save Our Homes, No on 39 committee. "Sometimes they choose to throw money around. Unfortunately, in this case they're also throwing around other people's money by making it easier to raise taxes."

The tech community's growing interest in education has been fostered in large part through TechNet, a national political organization of technology chief executives headed by Doerr and venture capitalist James Barksdale, former chief executive of Netscape. The group, founded in 1997 by Silicon Valley executives, has enlisted a growing number of tech players in the state to support its efforts.

Among them are Broadcom and Conexant, two leading and fiercely competitive chip makers in Orange County. Records show that Broadcom's Samueli has given at least $25,000 to the Prop. 39 campaign. He said he is committed to matching campaign donations from Orange County dollar for dollar up to $500,000.

"I don't really enjoy getting involved in politics," Samueli said. "I'm doing it out of necessity."

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