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EDITORIALS : ENDORSEMENTS 2008

No blank checks

Measure Q is far too vague for voters to risk $7 billion on future, unspecified L.A. Unified expenses.

October 03, 2008

The $7-billion bond proposed to refurbish schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District dwarfs the four previous school bonds. And that's not the problem with it. More bothersome is that the dollar figure more than doubled in a matter of days, with little strategy for spending it -- the measure contains vague promises, overlapping projects and more than $2 billion in unspecified future expenses. The very manner in which it ballooned -- after a poll showed that voters, when primed, seemed willing to pass a bigger measure -- gives us little confidence in the district's ability to spend this bond wisely. We urge a no vote on Measure Q.

The four bonds passed since 1997 were mainly targeted to relieve overcrowding. The district has enough money to do that by 2012. The new bond would go to repair and renovate schools as well as build adult-education and preschool centers. The need is real -- to meet earthquake and fire standards, wire schools for the Internet, update plumbing and so forth.

District officials say the reason for the unspecified expenditures is that this money is intended to last a decade, during which priorities might change. Without a plan that justifies and guides the expenditures, however, there is too much opportunity for board members and bureaucrats in this highly politicized district to push pet projects -- and unlike his predecessor, Roy Romer, Supt. David L. Brewer has not displayed the leadership skills needed to keep that from happening. Flexibility is fine, but it's irresponsible to go to voters for $7 billion -- which can't be spent on the teachers or textbooks that are even more badly needed -- without a well-honed vision and list of projects.

School bonds have been much easier to pass since a 2000 state constitutional amendment allowed them to go forward with 55% approval instead of the previous two-thirds. But that special treatment, meant to address overcrowded and crumbling classrooms, came with a proviso requiring bond measures to list "the specific school facilities projects to be funded." There is case law that calls into question just how specific they need to be, but items such as the one in Measure Q that allocates $1.3 billion for "future repair and safety priorities" don't come close.

Fortunately, rejecting this bond doesn't have to mean rejecting the needs of L.A.'s students. School officials can bring back their proposal in the spring, after developing a credible blueprint for using the money.

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