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School bond joins ballot

The $7-billion L.A. initiative would fund smaller campuses and pay for needed building repairs.

August 01, 2008|Howard Blume and Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to place a $7-billion bond on the November ballot. It would be the largest local school bond ever -- by far -- and would allow officials to tax property owners for building and repairing schools for the next 10 years.

The funding package enshrined ambitious new goals, but critics questioned the need for the bond -- as well as a price tag that more than doubled in the last two weeks.

From four previous bonds, the Los Angeles Unified School District already has enough money to allow every student to attend a neighborhood school on a traditional, two-semester schedule -- the main goal for those earlier measures.

This bond, by contrast, contains a wide-ranging wish list of possible expenditures that backers say would create state-of-the-art "small" schools with the potential to improve graduation rates and test scores.

The requested amount ballooned from $3.2 billion in recent days, allowing district officials to assuage some critics and constituencies with additional dollars and letting board members pad funds earmarked for their favored priorities, such as early childhood education centers.

Even so, the district has yet to allocate about $2 billion, leaving that for future unspecified needs.

Even without knowing how it will spend much of the money, officials assert that maintenance and construction needs resulting from decades of neglect would easily consume these funds and more. "We have so much left to do," said board President Monica Garcia.

How the bond money would be distributed was the subject of intense politicking before the vote, involving L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, among others. All three had aligned with local charter school leaders seeking to capture at least $300 million for charter schools -- an amount that district brass opposed.

In the final package, the amount designated for charter schools rose to $450 million. Charters are managed independently, free from some rules that govern traditional schools.

Villaraigosa backed a larger bond to provide more for charters without taking from other priorities, as well as to fund a longer-term commitment to school improvements that enhanced instruction. The mayor had commissioned a poll that suggested voters would support a larger bond. He hailed the board's action Thursday.

But the last-minute revisions angered some members of the district's appointed bond oversight committee. "The way this bond has been teed up borders on incompetent," Chairwoman Connie Rice said at the committee's Thursday meeting. She blamed "the failed leadership of this district and the superintendent."

Los Angeles schools Supt. David L. Brewer called the bond "a long-term solution so you don't have to go back to the public every two or three years."

Charter advocates remained dissatisfied, despite the designation of $450 million for their schools -- and a shot at millions more when funds from other portions of the bond are distributed. Charter supporters also had pushed unsuccessfully for the right of charter operators to own the facilities for which the district helps pay.

Charter leaders also wanted an exemption from Field Act standards, which require schools to be built to stricter earthquake-safety standards than other buildings. The goal is to afford more protection to children and also to set up schools as emergency shelters and disaster-relief centers. But the process adds delays and costs.

Charter school supporters argued, to no avail, that the Field Act is outdated and that modern building codes are sufficient. The state allows charter schools to operate in ordinary buildings, and many do, but neither the state nor L.A. Unified has ever built any charter school to the less-stringent municipal standard.

Some school officials simply object to lowering safety requirements. District administrators also have asserted that knowingly accepting lower standards could create liability should employees or children be injured.

The district also could not operate a regular school in a non-Field Act building, should the property eventually revert to L.A. Unified.

Broad and Caprice Young, who heads the politically influential California Charter Schools Assn., have threatened to oppose the bond unless they get more than what the school board approved Thursday. Young said the school board could still act before the election to craft a better deal -- an interpretation not accepted by top district officials.

Employee unions entered the fray in recent days, objecting to provisions sought by charter schools.

Union leaders have long been unhappy with the ability of charters to operate outside of district labor agreements.

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