More Pupils, Less Cash Cause School Shortage

Times Staff Writer

School districts in San Diego County and many other parts of California are facing a severe shortage of classroom space because of fund shortages and a surprising upswing in enrollments, Bill Honig, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said Thursday.

At a Lindbergh Field press conference after a flyover of some of the county's fastest-growing areas, Honig called on lawmakers to develop a financing package before the legislative session ends next month to avert an overcrowding crisis.

Statewide, "we will have over 550,000 new students in the next six years, and that translates into (a need for) school buildings and classrooms," he said. "If we don't get on with this job right now, we're going to be facing a severe shortage in California and San Diego County."

The state Department of Education forecasts that school districts in the county will need to build nearly 2,300 classrooms by 1990 at a projected cost of about $229 million--part of a statewide need estimated at $5 billion. Local districts say that by the end of the decade, they will need to build 37 elementary schools, 10 junior high schools and five high schools.

The estimates are based on an unexpected reversal of population trends, officials say. Enrollment in San Diego County schools peaked at 321,000 students in 1976, declining to 307,000 in 1981.

But then school populations, fueled by migration to the area and an increase in the number of women of child-bearing age, began to grow again. Enrollments hit 320,000 by the end of the last school year, and are expected to rise to 362,000 by 1990 and 415,000 by 1995.

Districts scattered throughout the county already are experiencing overcrowding, including the Chula Vista, San Ysidro, Sweetwater, Poway, Vista, Oceanside, Carlsbad, San Dieguito, Del Mar, Solana Beach and Santee districts, officials said.

Honig and superintendents from several of the fast-growing local districts, who joined him at the press conference, said they favored financing plans that spread the responsibility for paying for new schools among the state, local districts and developers.

State legislators currently are considering two basic approaches to closing the gap between school construction needs statewide and funds available from a state bond issue and tidelands oil revenues. That gap is estimated at $450 million per year

A bill proposed by state Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael) would impose a 1% fee on new building permits, while abolishing most of the fees local jurisdictions charge developers of new housing.

Rep. Larry Stirling (R-La Mesa) has introduced a package of bills supported by most area school districts that would preserve local options for raising construction funds, while revising state formulas that local officials say discriminate against San Diego County districts in the apportioning of state building funds.

Legislative aides said the school funding bills would be taken up by a conference committee in the next few weeks.

Honig contends that some districts' near-total reliance on developer fees places an unfair share of the burden of building schools on new homeowners. But prohibiting local districts from charging such fees, without any assurance they would share in the funds collected through a state assessment, is not the solution, he said.

"To take that option away is going to put us in a crisis," said Dianne Jacob, president of the Jamul-Las Flores school board and vice president of the California School Boards Assn. "We need multiple options in order to solve the funding needs."

One of the ironies of the classroom space squeeze is that shifting demographics mean districts that need new buildings in some neighborhoods are closing schools in others.

The San Diego Unified School District is trying to turn that circumstance to its advantage by leasing unneeded properties, then using the money it collects as leverage to borrow additional funds for new construction, said Supt. Thomas Payzant.

"If that program were to reach its potential, we could see the day when we eventually would not need to have developer fees," he said in an interview following the morning press conference.

However, district plans to use old buildings to raise money have run into opposition from neighborhood groups that favor community-oriented uses for the properties. Neighbors of the abandoned Dana Junior High School in Point Loma, for instance, have sued the district, challenging plans to condemn the old school.

Other local districts short on construction funds are considering other novel financial arrangements. Poway may create a special assessment district to finance construction of a junior high and high school, according to Supt. Robert Reeves.

For many districts, however, shoe-horning too many students into too little space is the only answer, school officials said. Many rely on portable classrooms. Santee schools are conducting special programs in closets, said Barbara Ryan, president of the Santee school board.

"We need the new construction right now," said Supt. Gary Olson of the Vista Unified School District, who piloted the Cessna 180 in which Honig flew over the county. "We're well behind the need."

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