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2 School Bonds Get Donations

Election: Statewide and L.A. Unified measures raise $9 million, mostly from teachers, builders. Opposition is muted.

October 09, 2002|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two campaigns for school construction bonds--a $13-billion statewide measure and a separate $3.3-billion proposal in Los Angeles--are gathering strong financial support from teachers unions, developers, nonprofit university foundations and even a Wal-Mart scion.

Financial disclosure reports released this week show the two measures together raised about $9 million as of Sept. 30 to spend on advertising and mailings before the Nov. 5 election.

Opponents have not reported any funds to defeat the measures, which would fund hundreds of new schools and modernization projects to ease overcrowding. But bond backers still worry that a sluggish economy, an uninspiring gubernatorial race and bids for San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession could jeopardize their passage.

Los Angeles supporters also need to overcome voters' suspicions that the local school district can not be trusted to handle big construction projects such as the much-delayed Belmont Learning Complex near downtown.

Proponents of the state bond, Proposition 47, contributed more than $7.8 million as of last month, and the campaign for Measure K, the bond for the Los Angeles Unified School District, reported raising more than $1.2 million.

The largest single donor so far has been the California Teachers Assn., which gave $3.3 million to the state bond campaign. The California Building Industry Assn., a group of housing developers, contributed $1 million. Nonprofit foundations for Cal State and University of California campuses gave more than $600,000 to help pass Proposition 47, which would provide $1.6 billion for public higher education and the rest for kindergarten through 12th-grade facilities. Education activist John T. Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, contributed $100,000, the most of any individual.

The biggest financial supporters of the Los Angeles bond effort are billionaire magnate Eli Broad and Univision chief Jerry Perenchio, who chipped in $200,000 apiece.

In radio spots, mailings and print ads, the Los Angeles bond campaign will stress the need for new campuses in a district in which nearly half the students are on staggered, year-round calendars. In addition, consultants are spreading a tightly scripted message that the school district has reformed its building program under Supt. Roy Romer and a new board majority.

The statewide Field Poll and a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California last month showed support for both measures hovering several points above the minimums needed for approval--Proposition 47 requires a simple majority and Measure K must get 55% of the vote. If the Los Angeles school bond passes, property owners within the district would pay about $60 per $100,000 of assessed property value annually over 30 years. The state bond would be covered by the general fund over the same period, with interest bringing its true cost to $26 billion.

The eclectic and deep-pocketed contributors show support for increased spending on California's educational facilities, and a community of self-interest that is nearly as broad.

"If you pass a $13-billion school construction program, obviously the builders are going to be interested because it means business for them," said Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Assn. "The chambers of commerce see this as a stimulus for the economy and more jobs. Teachers want to relieve school overcrowding and that sort of thing."

Home builders have a stake in the bonds because school districts may levy higher fees on new housing construction if the bonds fail.

Dozens of school districts around California are awaiting $6 billion for backlogged construction projects, state officials said, and many more proposals are eligible for consideration in the future.

Proposition 47 would be the first of two parts--the state Legislature already has placed a related $12-billion bond on the April 2004 ballot. Los Angeles Unified would couple its share of the state bond, which could exceed $1 billion, with the Measure K funds to complete 120 new schools and 80 expansions. Those extra facilities could end mandatory busing in some areas and return many students to regular 180-day calendars, officials said.

If either the local or state measure fails, Los Angeles Unified would have to seek other sources of money, such as developer fees or loans. At worst, construction plans would be abandoned.

Organized opposition to the ballot measures has been muted. Representatives of smaller school districts have opposed the state measure because new State Allocation Board rules allow the most overcrowded school districts--usually in urban areas--to jump to the head of the funding line. "This whole thing is directed toward Los Angeles," said state Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), the sole elected official to sign the ballot's opposition argument against Proposition 47.

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