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L.A. Unified Hopes Hasty Effort to Pass Bond Pays Off

Funds would allow completion of building program, but some fear the timing is wrong.

November 06, 2005|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

In the last few months, Los Angeles school district officials have tapped their political friends and supporters, trumpeted their new campuses and sent home mailers, all in an effort to win support Tuesday for a multibillion-dollar construction bond.

Now, all they can do is wait and see if their efforts pay off.

"We're just going to tough this one out," said attorney and political consultant Darry Sragow, who is managing the district's bond campaign. "But we feel very comfortable that we've done everything we can. In this uncertain political environment, we've done the right things."

If it passes, the nearly $4-billion Measure Y would be the fourth time since 1997 that voters have accepted higher property taxes to help fund the Los Angeles Unified School District's ambitious building and rehabilitation program.

With voters having approved $9.5 billion in previous bond measures and a campaign that had to make do with reduced time and money, veteran campaign and school district officials have said they expect Tuesday's election to be the closest yet. Bond measures require 55% voter approval for passage.

Slated for completion in 2012, the district's construction and repair project calls for about 160 new schools and extensive renovations to hundreds of others in the nation's second-largest public school system, one of the most severely overcrowded.

Measure Y, school officials say, would be the last infusion of cash needed to achieve the project's central goal of returning all students to neighborhood schools and bringing an end to involuntary busing and controversial year-round calendars.

The 46 new schools and scores of renovations are widely viewed as a vital element in the district's long-range effort to improve instruction in the 727,000-student district, which has struggled to raise low graduation rates and close a performance gap between black and Latino students and white students.

About 40% of Measure Y -- $1.6 billion -- would be used to build a final round of about 25 elementary schools, many of them in South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

A similar amount of money would be earmarked for repairs and renovations to older campuses, including updated fire alarm systems and asbestos abatement.

Also listed in the bond proposal, however, are dozens of schools that were included in previous bonds. That way, the district would have a safety net to use Measure Y money for those schools, if needed.

Measure Y would increase taxes an average of $26.71 per $100,000 of assessed residential and commercial property value. The previous three school construction bond issues together raised taxes about $85 for every $100,000 of assessed property value.

Before the seven-member school board voted to place Measure Y on the special election ballot, some board members and outside critics had questioned the wisdom of putting a bond measure before voters less than two years after the third one passed.

With schools at various stages of completion, Supt. Roy Romer has said repeatedly that the money is needed to keep the project on schedule.

Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who serves on the district's independent Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, at first questioned Romer's aggressive stance, but now says she agrees.

"The money that is in the bank is already spoken for," Rice said. "You have to line the money up. When you set up a complex [construction] project like this, you have to keep the train of resources coming. Otherwise the system you have built falls apart."

Nevertheless, the question of timing has dogged the campaign. Newspaper editorial boards have either not endorsed the bond or done so reluctantly.

And the school board's belated decision in late July to include the bond issue in the special election left campaign officials with little time to raise funds and forced them to scale back efforts to sway voters.

The campaign so far has raised slightly more than $1.2 million and has pledges for about $175,000 more, said the consultant, Sragow. The total will be less than the roughly $2 million spent on previous campaigns.

The bond also has competed for attention with several controversial statewide initiatives that have sparked fierce battles between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and labor unions. Sragow and some district officials have expressed concern that the bitter fighting may turn off many Democratic, minority voters who make up the bond measure's base of support.

"Especially in this political environment, these last few days are about getting people out to vote," said Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to Romer. "And reminding them that there are real issues on this ballot with real consequences, not just a lump of initiatives that are pro-Arnold or anti-Arnold."

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