AT THE END of the 20th century, the schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District resembled a flotilla of tramp steamers and aging, leaking ocean liners. All but a few listed precariously as they filled each year with more student passengers, most of whom were impoverished and traveling toward an uncertain destination.
This human cargo couldn't have been more important to Southern California's future. L.A.'s economy, crime rate and moral validity depended on the success of its public schools. But the increasingly unseaworthy campuses made students' passage into educated, contributing adults treacherous.
Then something remarkable happened in Los Angeles. Appalled at the spectacle, voters, local and statewide, approved a series of school bonds to fund what has become a $15.2-billion construction program to repair old schools and build new ones.
Along the way, the LAUSD has become ever more ambitious.
The district's latest school bond addresses, in large measure, a different order of necessity. Even without the new bond, the district has enough money to reinstate a full-length academic year as well as a two-semester schedule at middle and high schools. The new bond would return all elementary schools to the traditional schedule too. It also would provide money to improve lunchrooms and gyms, restock school libraries, build or buy preschool and adult-education facilities, modernize the district's police dispatch system, buy low-emission buses and divide big campuses into smaller ones, which is the latest trend in education reform.
It's as though district officials first made sure that everyone on the sinking ship at least had floating seat cushions, then decided to upgrade to life jackets, next sprang for lifeboats and now seek some good reading material and nutritious hot snacks to make the voyage more viable and palatable.
That's quite a contrast to 1999, when virtually no construction was going on and the school district was poised to cram more kids onto already cramped campuses, operate more and more schools year-round, shorten the academic year -- and still not have enough seats.
Six years later, the seat shortage is over -- even without the new bond -- once the campuses under construction come on line.
In this milieu, voters will be asked to approve the $3.985-billion bond in November. The bonds already in place tax residents about $85 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. The new bond would tack on another $27 per $100,000 or so.
How did we go from ignoble desperation to barest adequacy to something else?
It started with Measure BB in 1997. The $2.4-billion school bond, the first in 34 years, was mostly about fixing existing schools. But district officials never accurately projected what that would cost, so it was no surprise that the money fell well short of delivering the promised fixes. The bond set aside $900 million for desperately needed new schools, which doesn't go far at the current average cost of $85,000 a seat.
Meanwhile, virtually all the big projects turned into expensive, unremitting disasters. Litigation tied up -- for some 15 years -- an effort to build a high school on the site of the Ambassador Hotel. Scandal and politics produced a half-built Belmont Learning Complex. Environmental concerns prompted cancellation of the South Gate high school project. L.A. Academy Middle School in South Los Angeles is the one completed secondary school, but it sits on a polluted industrial site. Although probably safe, it's hardly a model to emulate.
Even after the 1997 bond, when the district wasn't outright stumbling, it was more about making-do than can-do. But a chastened and more attentive school district began to change in the wake of the Belmont debacle. This evolution accelerated in 2000, when a new school board majority, guided by interim Supt. Ray Cortines and Howard Miller, the district's newly deputized chief operating officer, ordered staff and consultants to determine where schools were most needed. A school-bond oversight committee and a newly created inspector general played watchdog. The district also initiated legal action against the state to get more construction money from Sacramento, which ultimately brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. Officials and activists supported a statewide initiative, Proposition 39, that lowered the threshold for approving school bonds from a two-thirds majority to 55%.
With uncharacteristic boldness, the school district assembled a high-powered construction division -- the top three officials each earn more than $170,000 a year -- and started to build even before all the money was in hand.
Fortunately for L.A. Unified, local voters came through in November 2002 with the $3.35-billion Measure K, and California voters also passed Proposition 47, which added $13.05 billion to the statewide kitty for matching local funds.