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Orange County

Will Voters Back Bonds Again?

Schools: Seven requests on March ballot passed, but the economy has slumped since. Now four districts seek a total of $804.5 million.


Tustin High's junior varsity football team suits up in a locker room where wires protrude from lights. Plaster has collapsed into piles of dust and the red painted floor is so mottled, a district official said the place resembles a slaughterhouse.

Students at Orange Coast College study at picnic tables in the shadow of a vacant, weed-encircled library, its books transplanted to 24 trailers in the parking lot after it was ruled seismically unfit three years ago.

Aging facilities and burgeoning enrollments have prompted Tustin Unified, Coast Community College District and two other Orange County school districts to put a combined $804.5 million in school facilities bonds on the November ballot.

Centralia, an elementary school district with nine campuses in Anaheim, Buena Park and La Palma, and Rancho Santiago Community College District are the other districts seeking money through increased property taxes. Depending on the district, the bond measures would add about $17 to $40 per $100,000 of assessed value to a homeowner's annual tax bill.

The upcoming election is the third since California voters lowered the threshold for passage of bonds from a two-thirds majority to 55%.

Before then, slightly more than half of school bond measures won approval statewide. But in the last two elections, voters passed 95 of the state's 108 school and community college district measures.

About half of those passed with less than a two-thirds majority.Officials at all four Orange County districts hope the March primary results foretell success Nov. 5. At that time, Orange County voters passed all seven school bond measures before them. But with no relief in sight for the economy, some worry voters will reject any new tax, however small.

Gene Farrell, interim president of Orange Coast College, acknowledged that Coast Community College District may have waited too long to put a measure on the ballot. "You never want to be on the back end of a wave," he said.

Statewide, more than 100 districts are trying to raise $10 billion in bonds on the November ballot, according to the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

The local measures work in tandem with Proposition 47, a $13-billion statewide school bond, education officials say. If the state bond measure passes but local matching funds do not, districts would have to pay for projects through general fund money or donations.

"Passing the local bond is a way to bring our tax dollars that go to Sacramento back to our community and back to our schools," said Kristin Gallagher, campaign co-chairwoman for Tustin Unified's bond measure.

Tustin is seeking $80 million for maintenance and infrastructure improvements at the district's 20 oldest schools, including a makeover of the Tustin High locker room.

At Hillview High, the lack of air conditioning has led one teacher to cool her classroom by perching a fan on a block of ice.

At Foothill High, 2,300 students share three bathrooms. The gym floor cannot withstand being sanded one more time and 27 portable classrooms circle the campus.

"They're well-maintained for older schools, but they were all built when the most advanced thing we were using in the classroom was a film-strip projector," district Supt. Peter Gorman said.

Centralia officials compare their facilities to 1960s trucks with new paint jobs: They look fine on the outside but need a tuneup to keep running.

The district's $17.5-million bond measure would fund major renovations at schools like Knott Elementary in Buena Park, where the computer lab has no Internet access and trees have clogged sewer lines, causing frequent backups.

"The money we have will barely allow us to maintain current conditions," Assistant Supt. Marc Forgy said. "And some of the things have gotten so bad we can't fix them any longer. We have to replace them."

Across California, community college districts, too, are grappling with a marked increase in students, an aging infrastructure and insufficient state funds for capital improvements.

Rancho Santiago Community College District has a $337-million measure on the ballot to pay for nearly 30 construction and renovation projects at Santa Ana and Santiago Canyon colleges.

Proposed projects at Santa Ana College include building a math and science facility, buying adjacent land to expand, and repairing crumbling walkways and leaky roofs.

At Santiago Canyon, which became a separate college five years ago, the campus hums with the sound of portable generators.

Both the library and fitness center are housed in temporary classrooms, and many students have at least half their classes in them.

Building permanent facilities will make students "finally feel like they're at a real college," said student Rita Kallas, 20, of Orange.

If passed, Coast Community College District's measure would provide $370 million to replace and upgrade facilities at Coastline, Golden West and Orange Coast colleges.

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