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ELECTION 2002

School Bonds Set State Record

Local and statewide measures will provide $22 billion to add and upgrade campuses.

November 07, 2002|Solomon Moore and Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writers

Start with a generous helping of sympathy for children in badly overcrowded schools. Add a new, lower election threshold required for passage. Toss in a big campaign push by developers and unions.

With that, California created a recipe for the approval Tuesday of about $22.4 billion worth of school construction bonds, the largest amount from a single election day in state history.

Voters approved bond issues in 90 local school districts -- 86% of those that attempted such ballot measures. Statewide, Proposition 47, which will provide $13 billion to K-12 systems and public colleges and universities, won 58.9% of the vote.

"This shows strong public support for schools in California," said state Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo) who won Tuesday's election for state superintendent of public instruction. "People are still willing to invest in public education because they understand that it is the great equalizer."

A proposition two years ago lowered the threshold for passage for local school construction bonds -- from 66.6% to 55% -- and set the stage for what is expected to be a school building boom for the next decade.

But many districts, including Sacramento City Unified and the Los Angeles Unified School District, garnered more than two-thirds of the vote. Los Angeles Unified's Measure K will provide $3.3 billion for as many as 120 new campuses.

Some education officials said the big vote margins showed that Californians understood how dilapidated and inadequate many public school campuses have become. Others contend that the bond votes were referendums on how public education has improved in recent years.

"If the schools were not showing progress -- were not being responsible -- there would not be the public support" for such massive bond sales, said Kerry Mazzoni, state secretary of education.

Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said the 68% approval for the local measure was a redemption for the nation's second-largest school system, whose public image has been battered in recent years by revelations of school construction waste and mismanagement.

"We've frankly turned a corner enough in terms of trust and confidence," Romer said. "They know this place is turning around."

Well-funded campaigns also buoyed the prospects for state and local school bonds. The California Building Industry Assn. raised $1.6 million for Proposition 47, which was backed by about $9 million in donations. The California Teachers Assn. raised $5 million.

"We made a strong case that public schools were literally falling down," CTA President Wayne Johnson said. "The California electorate responded and said we don't want that; we want our kids to go to school in decent facilities."

The state bonds will provide matching funds for new schools and renovations, mainly to local districts that were able to pass their own bonds. The state bond measure also allocates about $1.65 billion for colleges and university facilities.

School districts across the state are seeking campus sites and racing to complete funding applications to take advantage of the new bonds.

Even such staggering amounts of money won't be enough. About 1.2 million students attend overcrowded schools and, officials say, school districts will need at least $25 billion to completely upgrade old campuses and solve overcrowding problems.

"I think that voters get it," said Kevin Gordon, executive director of the California Assn. of School Business Officials. "They know that if you don't invest in education, you'll never improve the economy. And we've been talking about the under-funding of school facilities for almost 20 years."

Proposition 13 made such bond issues necessary, education analysts say, because it sharply limited the amount of property taxes that local governments and school districts could raise.

Another hurdle was the two-thirds vote previously required for any local bond measure, said Rick Simpson, an education consultant to Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City). "It kept the passage rate low. Anecdotally, we heard that many districts, based on demographics and polling, sort of engaged in a self-selection process and wouldn't even try to pass bonds."

Fueled by a baby boomlet and immigration, California's public schools absorbed 1 million additional students between 1985 and 1990. So the pressure grew for change, Simpson added.

In 1993, Gov. Pete Wilson called a special statewide election and gave California a chance to vote to lower the requirement for passage of bond propositions to a simple majority. It failed twice before voters two years ago finally passed Proposition 39, which lowered the threshold to 55% for local education measures.

O'Connell, the newly elected state superintendent, was one of the sponsors of that change. Since the 55% requirement became law, many more school districts have been able to get voter approval for bonds and become eligible for state matching funds, he said.

"Before that, school districts only passed bonds about 50% of the time," O'Connell said.

Kim Rueben, an education researcher for the Public Policy Institute of California, said districts were even less successful before the threshold changed. She estimated that only one-third of local bond propositions were approved before 2000.

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Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki contributed to this report.

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