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Voters in O.C. Split on School Bond Issues

Elections: One measure passes overwhelmingly in Laguna while another in Huntington falls short of two-thirds approval.

June 06, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laguna Beach voters gave a resounding yes to a $39-million bond measure Tuesday, while a similar bond issue in Huntington Beach fell short of passage.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District's bond issue captured an overwhelming 80% of the vote. The Huntington Beach City School District's $25-million bond measure garnered 62.1%, short of the two-thirds needed.

Although last year's passage of Proposition 39 enables school bond measures to win with 55% of the vote in general elections, Tuesday's special elections required a two-thirds majority, or just under 67%, for passage.

"The champagne is flowing," said Steve Rabago, co-chairman of the Committee for Laguna Beach Schools, at a victory party at Trustee Al Hathaway's home. "We're just thrilled."

"We are ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic," said Theresa A. Daem, superintendent of the Laguna Beach Unified School District. "We are so appreciative of this community. They are awesome."

Passage, she said, "means our schools are going to be brought up to Orange County standards and our kids are going to be in the facilities they deserve."

Up the coast in Huntington Beach, Assistant Supt. Jerry Buchanan was experiencing very different emotions. "I'm extremely disappointed," he said. "The kids deserve upgraded and modern facilities, so we're just going to have to take a look and see what we're going to do over the next few months."

Had they put the measure on the next general-election ballot, the Huntington Beach bond issue would have passed. But Buchanan said school officials didn't want to wait until next year.

"We thought we were prepared and ready and our surveys had indicated we could win at 66 2/3%, so we decided to go ahead now rather than wait."

The Laguna Beach bond measure, the first in the district's more than 120-year history, generated no organized opposition. And while the Huntington Beach bond issue received minor opposition in recent weeks, neither ballot contained statements against the measures.

The school districts, both of which have buildings that are 35 years and older, earmarked the bonds primarily to repair roofs; renovate electrical, plumbing, and heating and ventilation systems; and to modernize classrooms.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District's 25-year bonds will cost taxpayers within the district about $36 a year for each $100,000 of assessed valuation. The district serves about 2,600 students in two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.

The Huntington Beach City School District's 30-year bond measure--the first in nearly 40 years--would have cost the average property owner about $16 a year per $100,000 of assessed valuation. The district has eight elementary and two middle schools that serve 6,696 students.

The district's ability to pay its 20% share of $20.8 million in future state modernization funds hinged on the bond measure's passing. Buchanan said the district has no other source of funds for the $4.2-million match.

Until recently, school bonds have historically been a notoriously tough sell to Orange County voters.

But passage of the Buena Park School District's $13.8-million bond issue in 1998, with 74% of the vote, ended a 23-year countywide streak of rejection. Before Buena Park's victory, only six of 17 school bond measures had won voter approval, the last in 1975.

Despite the loss in Huntington Beach, the Laguna Beach victory brings the number of school bond issues passed in the last 2 1/2 years to eight in 11 attempts.

"They've been very successful," Mike Kilbourn, legislative advocate for the county Department of Education, said before the election. He cites a pro-education climate in Orange County for the recent string of bond issue victories.

Orange County, Kilbourn said, has "some of the highest [Academic Performance Index] scores in the state. We have the safest schools in the state. We have the lowest dropout rate in the state. All of that makes people proud of their schools and they show that by supporting our bond elections."

Statewide from 1986 through the spring of 2001, Kilbourn said, 54% of school bond measures have passed.

"If you look back over the percentages over the years, most of the failures have been between 55% and 60%," meaning a strong majority of voters favored the bonds, he said. And with the passage of Proposition 39, allowing bond measures to win with 55% of the vote in general elections rather than 66.6%, Kilbourn predicts the passage rate will climb to more than 90%.

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