State’s Public Schools Face Space Crisis : Classrooms Needed in Next Decade for Million New Students

Times Urban Affairs Writer

California faces a critical shortage of classroom space to accommodate a deluge of new public school students expected in the next decade.

The state Department of Finance has forecast an statewide enrollment jump of more than 1 million students--a 26.5% increase--in kindergarten through 12th grade by 1994.

While Orange County is expected to have less of a problem than neighboring counties, an upswing in school population already is under way and will be pronounced in the next five years, a county official said.


State Department of Education officials say they have not calculated the cost of accommodating all these students, but they estimate that in the next five years, at least $5 billion will be needed to build 26,140 classrooms--16,523 of them in 10 Southern California counties. In that period, enrollment in kindergarten through 8th grade is expected to grow statewide by more than 500,000.

Already, overcrowding is found in almost every part of the state--in the Asian and Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles but also in booming, predominantly Anglo suburban communities in Contra Costa, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

In Orange County, The Santa Ana Unified School District has become so overcrowded that a special advisory committee last year recommended that the district build a new high school and up to five new elementary schools. The district, which has been affected by unceasing waves of Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants, last spring authorized the construction of a new high school.

In Sacramento, state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said: “We’re facing a real problem . . . We’d better get cracking on it.” Honig plans to tour overcrowded school districts in the next few weeks, drumming up support for increased state spending for schools.

Several school construction bills will be considered by the Legislature when it resumes this week, but key legislators are pessimistic that enough money can be generated to solve the problem.

The new enrollment surge comes as something of a surprise because many school districts have had to close empty schools in recent years and there was a widespread belief that statewide enrollment was declining or at least had reached a plateau.

But Carol Corcoran of the population unit in the state Department of Finance said the total of state births has been increasing every year since 1973, rising from about 298,000 in 1973 to about 436,000 in 1983.

In 1979, total births jumped from 356,000 to 380,000--the biggest increase in a decade. Those youngsters are about to enter the schools, Corcoran said.

She also noted that migration to California has continued to be heavy and that private school enrollment, after rising steadily for several years, leveled off last year.

In Orange County, some districts, such as Orange Unified, are still in a school-age population decline. But other districts, such as Santa Ana Unified, and have never had a dip in their growth--and still others that have been on the decline in recent years are expected to start growing again in the next five years.

“We’ve noticed definite growth in kindergartens around the county in recent years,” said Sheila Meyers, vice president of the Orange County Board of Education. She added that the kindergarten growth will translate into increased enrollment in the elementary schools and high schools in a matter of years.

“It seems that the baby boom babies are now having their babies,” she said. “As the trend continues, we’re expecting a rather severe teacher shortage--proably within the next five years.”

Meyers, who served on the Fountain Valley School Board for 13 years before being elected to the county education board, said that the need for new school buildings “will vary from district to district in Orange County” as the growth takes place. But she said she doubts that much construction will be necessary.

“Many of the districts, including Fountain Valley, decided not to sell their properties when they shut schools down a few years ago,” Meyers noted. “It will just be a matter of reopening many of those schools.”

Meyers said that the projected shortage of teachers in Orange County stems from the scheduled retirement in the next decade of many of the county’s existing teachers and an apparent shortage of new, youngteachers available to be hired as replacements.

“Not as many young people have gone into the teaching profession in recent years,” Meyers said. “Salary is the big reason. They’re asking why they should take a $20,000 (teaching) job when their college degrees could put them in $50,000 jobs.”

Statewide, the projected need for new and rehabilitated schools through 1990 is about $5 billion, according to State Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael), chairman of the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. That sum is nowhere in sight.

“The demographics have changed,” said Jim Murdoch, director of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (CASH), the major school construction lobbying group in Sacramento. “Now it is a statewide problem--north, south, rural and urban. It’s an issue that’s hitting everybody.”

The state is spending about $370 million this year, and next year the total may rise to more than $400 million, but school officials say that will fall far short of meeting the need.

Some of the most severe overcrowding can be found in Los Angeles--in the downtown area, in the south central and southeastern parts of the city and, increasingly, in the eastern San Fernando Valley. And it will get worse, said Byron Kimball, director of school facilities services for Los Angeles schools.

Another 70,000 students are expected in the next five years, in kindergarten through 12th grade, and most of them will be in the parts of the city where schools already are jammed, Kimball said.

But a serious shortage of classroom space also plagues such suburban communities as Chino, Moreno Valley--a newly-incorporated city 10 miles east of Riverside--and Solano Beach, in northern San Diego County.

When California experienced an enrollment surge in the 1950s and early ‘60s, local bond issues routinely were passed to pay for new schools, wrote Walter I. Garms of Policy Analysis for California Education, a research organization.

Fifty-five per cent of the state’s school buildings were constructed between 1949 and 1964, Garms said in a recent report.

But the 1978 passage of Proposition 13-- the Jarvis-Gann state constitutional amendment limiting local property taxes--changed all that.

“Jarvis-Gann fundamentally changed many things in California and certainly one of them was school construction,” Garms wrote. Local bond issues and tax overrides were out.

“With the passage of Proposition 13, the principal source of local funding for school construction was eliminated, making assumption of major responsibility by the state a necessity,” Garms said. “However, the amount of state money available has not been sufficient to meet the needs of the districts as they perceive them...”

The exact need for new schools, remodeled schools and improved maintenance cannot be determined, experts say, until a state inventory of public school space is completed. The widely accepted $5 billion estimate is derived from adding up the projected needs claimed by individual districts.

The only construction money now available comes from a $450 million statewide bond issue approved by voters last year and about $150 million a year in tidelands oil revenue earmarked for schools.

The Los Angeles school district alone is asking the state for $318 million--to build 13 new elementary schools, a junior high school, a senior high school and additions to 23 existing sites. The district also has submitted applications for 300 remodeling projects in the last five months.

But a school district must jump many hurdles to qualify for state money, and the process is “slow and cumbersome,” Garms said in his paper.

Even if a new school is approved by the State Allocation Board-- made up of two state senators, two assemblymen, the State Director of Finance, the director of the General Services Administration and the Supt. of Public Instruction--three to five years pass before the school is actually built. The Deukmejian Administration moved to streamline the process this year, after receiving many complaints from school districts. The Office of Local Assistance, which serves as staff for the State Allocation Board, was doubled in size, computerized record-keeping was added and a start was made on the state school building space inventory.

As a result, the board now is apportioning between $30 and $35 million to schools each month--twice as much as a year ago--according to Carl Carmichael, deputy director of the Office of Local Assistance.

In the absence of adequate state funding, school districts have resorted to a variety of methods to finance construction and accommodate more students.

Los Angeles has placed 94 schools, enrolling more than 130,000 pupils, on year-round operation, even though the district does not have enough money to air condition all of these classrooms. Supt. Harry Handler has suggested that even more schools may be moved to year-round operation and that the school calendar may be shifted from three semesters to four quarters, another step that would increase capacity in existing schools. Handler also has discussed the possibility of using non-school space in the community for classrooms.

Los Angeles also bused about 55,000 students last year--14,000 in a mandatory program to relieve overcrowding and 41,000 in various voluntary programs. But some of those who were bused voluntarily were also escaping from overcrowded conditions, school officials said.

Ironically, the number of students who were bused last year exceeded the total who were transported in the third and final year of the mandatory desegregation busing program. That number was 48,254, in the 1980-81 school year, and it included both mandatory transfers and voluntary programs such as “magnet” schools.

The difference, of course, was that the court-ordered busing efforts were two-way, while now the students bused are almost all minority youngsters moving to less crowded, predominantly white schools.

Busing is not confined to big city school districts. The Moreno Valley Unified School District bused about one-third of its 11,500 pupils last year, to find available classroom seats. Some Rialto families, after buying new homes, found they would have to bus their kindergartners to San Bernardino, 10 miles away.

To finance school construction, a few cities, like Chino, have approved special taxes for school construction. Others--the Corona-Norco Unified School District is an example--have formed special assessment districts, using developer fees to pay the debt service on long-term bonds for new schools.

But most districts in fast-growing suburban communities have turned to “developer fees,” charged to those who build new homes and apartments.

Some fees are authorized by state law, others by city or county ordinances. They range from a few hundred dollars to almost $6,000 per new housing unit, depending on the school district and the size of the house or apartment.

CASH, the school construction lobby, estimates that at least 240 of California’s 1,020 school districts now charge such fees.

In San Diego County, 36 of 43 K-12 (kindergarten-12th grade) districts charge developer fees, according to Dick Newman of the county schools.

Most developers don’t like these fees, nor do home buyers, who usually wind up paying them in the form of higher mortgages.

The Building Industry Assn. has estimated that $9,000 in total developer fees-- not an uncommon amount when school fees are added to charges for roads, sewers, street lights, flood control facilities and other “infrastructure”-- can add more than $100 per month to a 30-year mortgage on a $100,000 home.

“My interest is that home buyer,” said Greene, chairman of the Senate housing committee. “I want to get rid of those fees so we don’t force people out of the affordable housing market.”

Greene has introduced a bill-- SB 999-- that would charge a 1% fee on all new building permits throughout the state. The senator said the measure would raise about $250 million a year, which could be used either directly for school construction on a “pay as you go” basis, or to pay the debt service on state revenue bonds.

In return for the 1% building permit fee, the Greene bill would abolish most local developer fees.

The Building Industry Assn. opposed the bill at first, skeptical that local fees would really be eliminated, but now has changed to a neutral position, BIA lobbyist Don Collin said.

However, both the Assn. of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Assn. oppose the legislation, principally because it would eliminate their opportunity to benefit from higher local developer fees.

“Those fees have worked well for a lot of districts,” said Jim Donnelly, lobbyist for the school administrators. “There’s no guarantee that a district with a critical need is going to be the beneficiary of (statewide) money from the 1% fee.”

Another bill, this one sponsored by Assemblywoman Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) would place an $800 million general obligation bond issue on the ballot next year, either for the June primary or the fall general election.

Gov. Deukmejian’s position on these bills is not known but he has expressed a desire to limit total bond issues next year to $1.5 billion and the Bergeson measure would consume more than half of that amount.

Even if both measures become law, and voters approve a major new school construction bond issue, the need would not be met.

“I don’t see an answer to this particular problem,” Sen. Greene said. “The problem was caused by Proposition 13 and, by and large, people seem to be well satisfied that they passed Proposition 13 and there’s no hue and cry out there to do away with it. This is a problem we’re going to have to live with until it gets so bad we come up with a new funding solution.”

Times staff writer Bill Billiter in Orange County contributed to this story.