On a day when they rejected everything else put before them, voters sounded an unmistakable vote of confidence in the ongoing push to build and repair hundreds of Los Angeles Unified School District campuses by easily passing a $4-billion construction bond.
Beyond the bricks and mortar, the surprisingly wide margin of victory for Measure Y served as vindication for schools' chief Roy Romer, who shepherded the bond to victory despite a host of doubters and strategic disadvantages.
Although critics warn that the district still must grapple with high dropout rates and poor academic performance at many schools, the win seems certain to strengthen Romer's hand as he tries to cement his legacy in the final 18 months of his tenure.
"To be sure, there are still major issues facing this district," said Shane Martin, dean of the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. "But this shows that Los Angeles is very positive on what Romer has contributed as superintendent."
Measure Y, which needed 55% approval for passage, received nearly 66% of the vote. It marks the fourth time since 1997 that taxpayers have eagerly agreed to help fund the ambitious building and renovation program in one of the nation's most overcrowded urban school systems. In total, voters in the district have now approved about $13.5 billion in school bonds.
Romer and his staff have said Measure Y represents the final deposit of cash needed to finish what is widely considered to be the largest public works project in the country. Scheduled for completion in 2012, the effort has already opened 46 campuses and calls for about 115 more, providing enough new seats in the 727,000-student district to end forced busing and year-round school schedules.
Such expansion is sorely needed in a district that for decades neglected to build new schools while enrollment swelled by tens of thousands of students, most of them lower-income Latinos. Bond campaign officials said they targeted the parents of these students, hoping enough would turn out to vote for the bond.
"There was a message here that parents are tired of sending their children to overcrowded schools and tired of putting them on buses for hours every day," said Araceli Simeon-Luna, a director at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "They are beginning to see schools being built and repaired, and I think that helped with the momentum on Tuesday."
South Los Angeles parent Audrey Starks echoed Simeon-Luna's comments, expressing frustration that her two sons attend overcrowded, year-round schools. "I didn't think about the money," she said. "I just thought about my children.... Why not put more schools in the communities, so students can get the attention they need?"
Amid the celebration, however, some cautioned that the money by itself wasn't a panacea in a district that has struggled to retain young teachers and where less than 30% of students tested proficient last year in English.
"This does almost nothing to solve the basics of teaching and learning," said Jeannie Oakes, an education professor at UCLA.
Though new schools may be more attractive to prospective teachers, Oakes said the campuses would do little to improve learning unless the district also addresses shortcomings in teacher training and support.
Board member David Tokofsky called Measure Y "a tremendous vote of confidence in the practical issue of building schools," but added that "the tougher part is improving curriculum."
Romer has portrayed the building project as vital to long-term curriculum reforms. He has been reluctant, for instance, to push aggressively on an effort to divide high schools into small, more manageable units until new campuses relieve some overcrowding.
With Romer leaving in June 2007 after seven years as superintendent, he emphasized that Measure Y would crown his efforts as a school builder and prepare the district for a smooth transition to his successor.
"If it hadn't passed, it would have been a much harder transition [to another superintendent], because I would have had to go fight for this bond again," Romer said. "Now, it's as if I've done my tour of duty and we can begin to search for the next colonel to run this."
Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report.