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Fuzzy math

The ill-defined expansion of a bond proposal leaves the LAUSD with some explaining to do.

August 04, 2008

Leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District have much to explain about how a $3.2-billion bond proposal, considered perfectly adequate two weeks ago, more than doubled in size, pumped up with blurry references to future, unspecified projects. And they won't have to explain that just to voters, but possibly to the state's lawyers.

School bonds -- which can be used only to fund construction and equipment, not staff or textbooks -- got much easier to pass in 2000, when voters amended the state Constitution to allow 55% approval rather than the previous two-thirds. But the 55% rule applies only to bond measures that list "the specific school facilities projects to be funded." Unless the school district wants to try for that difficult 67% approval, it ought to do better than allocate billions of dollars for projects that haven't been identified and aren't needed, but might be someday.

Two weeks ago, the biggest concern about the $3.2-billion bond was whether charter schools should get $150 million or twice that. Then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had an idea: Bridge the gap by raising the amount of the bond. But instead of tacking on an extra $150 million, the district added $3,800 million.

Voters have been generous with L.A. school bonds, knowing that campuses were cramped and students were on year-round schedules. Though the district has enough money to put all students on a regular calendar, we agree that seats alone are not enough. More is needed to remodel old buildings, construct charters and bring in new technology. But voters will also be asked to pay nearly a billion dollars to renovate even some new schools for the district's "small schools" initiative, plus half a billion dollars for solar and other green technologies, at the same time they'll be asked to tax themselves for anti-gang measures, children's hospitals, local transit and more.

A poll conducted by the mayor's office makes it clear why the total got so ambitious: When primed by pollsters, voters said they were willing to vote for more than $3 billion in bonds. But is it right, especially in a harsh economic climate, to ask for $7 billion merely because you can? What the district really needs is money for both buildings and better instruction -- rock-star science and math teachers, counselors and the like. But the latter can be funded only with a parcel tax, requiring two-thirds approval. Still, this is the district that put off needed textbook purchases this year to save money. Kids can't learn math in even the prettiest classrooms without textbooks.

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