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L.A. Unified Seeks Nearly $4 Billion to Build and Repair

October 30, 2005|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

With dozens of new campuses opened and scores more in the works, Los Angeles school officials are hoping that voters on Nov. 8 will approve a multibillion-dollar construction and repair bond.

The nearly $4-billion Measure Y marks the fourth time since 1997 that the Los Angeles Unified School District has turned to taxpayers to help fund an aggressive building and rehabilitation project aimed at overhauling the nation's second-largest school district, which is among the most severely crowded. Voters have already approved $9.5 billion in three previous bond measures.

Scheduled for completion in 2012, the construction project calls for about 160 new schools and extensive renovations to others that will provide enough desk space to end involuntary busing for thousands of students and the district's reliance on year-round calendars.

So far, the district has opened 46 schools and made repairs at hundreds of older campuses.

The new schools and renovations are considered crucial to long-term efforts to improve the 727,000-student district, which has struggled to raise low graduation rates and close a dramatic performance gap between black and Latino children and whites.

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.

"The only ones who are going to lose if this doesn't pass are the students," said school board President Marlene Canter. "We have to fulfill our promise to students to alleviate overcrowding -- to get them off buses and back on a regular schedule."

Of the remaining Measure Y funds, school board members would allot $50 million to help build and equip publicly funded but largely independent charter schools.

Citing sharp increases in charter school enrollment, charter advocates have dismissed the sum as insufficient and have largely declined to campaign for the bond issue.

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.

Bonds must be approved by 55% of voters to pass.

District Supt. Roy Romer and senior construction officials urged school board members to place Measure Y on the special election ballot despite questions from some critics about the wisdom of putting a bond measure before voters less than two years after they had passed another.

With schools at various stages of completion, Romer said the infusion of cash was needed to keep the multi-phased project on schedule.

After much debate and delay, the board agreed in late July to place the bond proposal on the November ballot. Since then, the bond has won the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and dozens of other political leaders.

The board's belated decision, however, left campaign officials with little time to raise funds and forced them to scale back efforts to persuade voters.

They decided, for example, to forgo focus groups and polls to be able to afford four mailings to prospective voters.

In previous campaigns, targeted voters received at least six.

The campaign so far has raised slightly more than $1 million and has pledges for about $260,000 more, said lawyer and political consultant Darry Sragow, who is directing the campaign. The total will be significantly less than the $1.7 million and $2 million spent on the previous two bond issues.

A notable absence from the list of donors is billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, who has strongly supported earlier bond efforts. Broad is widely thought to be frustrated with the district's handling of charter schools and other issues.

Although previous bonds passed by comfortable margins, district and campaign officials say they expect a closer vote this time.

A poll commissioned by the district in June also indicated a tight race. After being told about the work remaining on the construction project, 57% of likely voters said they would definitely or probably vote in favor of Measure Y.

If the bond issue fails, district officials have said, they would again take the idea to voters in a future election.

"It's going to be close to the finish line," Canter said. "I'm cautiously optimistic. I can't believe the city will let us down."

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