Amid mounting concerns over state education funding, the Los Angeles Board of Education is considering asking voters to approve a multibillion-dollar bond, as well as a property tax, on the November special election ballot.
Some board members and others, however, are questioning the idea of again turning to taxpayers less than a year and a half after they approved a school bond in March 2004.
If the board moves to place the $3.8-billion bond measure on the ballot, it would be the fourth time since 1997 that the nation's second-largest school system has looked to taxpayers to help fund its ambitious building and repair project aimed at ending severe classroom overcrowding. Voters have approved more than $9.5 billion in three previous school bond measures.
The tax initiative, proposed by board member David Tokofsky, calls for a flat $150 charge on all parcels of land -- regardless of size or use -- within school district boundaries. Money raised from the tax would be spent on reducing class sizes, improving instruction for poor-performing students and increasing campus security, among other things.
Schools Supt. Roy Romer is pushing strongly for the bond, saying it is the final infusion of cash needed to keep the massive construction project on track to reach its goal of ending involuntary busing for thousands of students and returning year-round schools to traditional two-semester calendars.
Nearly a third of the bond money -- $1.4 billion -- would be used to build the last round of new schools, and a similar amount would be spent on repairing existing schools. The remaining money would be spread among several projects, including improvements to the district's computer systems and funding for charter schools.
The bond "is for the final phase of work," Romer said in an interview last week. "We are under pressure from throughout the community to get these last schools built -- we have an obligation to finish these schools. It is needed and it is the right time to ask for it."
Though all board members acknowledge the need for the money, board members Jose Huizar, Jon Lauritzen and Julie Korenstein are skeptical of Romer's call for a fourth bond this year. After three bonds that stocked district accounts and raised property taxes $85 for every $100,000 of assessed property value, Huizar said it may be too soon to ask for another.
"This whole bond might be rushed," said Huizar, who is running for City Council. "With the previous bonds, there was a sense of urgency, but now I don't think there is that urgency.... There is still money in the bank."
After deciding not to consider the bond and parcel tax at their last meeting, board members said they would probably discuss both issues today and vote on them later in the month.
Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who serves on the district's independent Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, expressed concern that the bond issue could be overshadowed in the run-up to the special election that includes several controversial initiatives.
"Is this bond needed? Absolutely," Rice said. "But whether it should be this election is unclear.... We have to look at it in the context of how ugly it could get on the other issues on the ballot."
Rice was referring to several initiatives supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that will be placed on the November ballot. In particular, unions are expected to mount a fierce campaign against a proposal to require them to receive permission from members before using dues for political purposes.
Tokofsky's parcel tax proposal came largely as a result of another Schwarzenegger ballot measure that would restrict how much the state budget could increase each year. Opponents say the measure could lead to severe cuts in state education funding.
But the parcel tax idea has further complicated Romer's push for the bond. In a poll commissioned by the district earlier this month, 60% of voters said they would definitely or probably vote for the bond. When voters were first asked whether they supported a parcel tax, however, that total dropped to 49%. School bonds require 55% voter approval to pass.
Board members and school finance experts also expressed concern about Romer's decision to forge ahead with a bond measure while presuming that legislators would agree to change state laws in a way that would provide Los Angeles Unified with increased construction funds.
Under California law, school districts receive additional building aid from state coffers that supplement local bond measures.
The amount of money a school district receives to help build a new school is determined by enrollment projections, which predict how many students will attend the campus years before it is built.
Because of enrollment dips in recent years, Los Angeles Unified has lost eligibility for about $700 million in state aid, district officials said.