School Crowding: Solution Clouded by Electioneering

Times Urban Affairs Writer

When the people who plan for and build California's schools met here recently, a story made the rounds that somewhere in the state, pupils were attending classes in tents.

The story proved untrue, but its ready acceptance served as testimony that, among school people at least, California's school overcrowding problem has reached crisis proportions. While students may not be going to school in tents, they can certainly be found in deserted warehouses and abandoned pizza parlors.

Enrollment is soaring. The statewide growth in kindergarten through 12th grade is expected to be about 100,000 a year, and the public school population is projected at more than 5 million by 1994-95.

Because providing adequate facilities for this crush of new pupils is a task that cuts across political lines, pressure has been building on both Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and the Democratic-controlled Legislature to do something. But while both sides now acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, election-year political considerations make it doubtful that a solution will be found in 1986.

The statewide surge in school-age children is not in itself a surprise. The state Department of Finance's population unit points out that there has been a steady increase in the number of women of child-bearing age, reversing the trend of the 1970s.

As an example, at Redlands Community Hospital in San Bernardino County there were only 600 births in 1979. By 1985 that number had jumped to 1,800.

"We just caught the first bunch in kindergarten this year," said Dick Bates, facilities planner for the Redlands schools, "but there are a lot more where they came from."

In Los Angeles, where the problem is most severe, enrollment is expected to increase by 82,000 over the next five years. That would bring district enrollment to a record high of about 660,000.

In order to cram more students into existing facilities, 125,000 children already attend year-round schools in Los Angeles. The school board recently voted to order more portable classrooms, increase the busing of students away from overcrowded schools and place more schools on a 12-month calendar, beginning in the summer of 1987.

Booming Suburban Districts

But the problem affects not only Los Angeles, where most of the new students are Asians and Latinos, but booming suburban school districts such as Chino and Moreno Valley, near Riverside, where most of the pupils are white.

Enrollments are rising in every county in the state except Marin and San Mateo, according to the California School Boards Assn.

In some districts the crush of pupils threatens to undermine educational reforms--smaller class size, tougher high school graduation requirements, more emphasis on solid academic subjects--that were instituted three years ago.

"If we don't have the facilities, the educational reforms we've been trying to achieve won't happen," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig said.

But in an election year, when assigning blame for problems and taking credit for solutions have a tendency to take precedence over the problems themselves, arranging for construction of new schools is proving difficult.

"More and more issues are getting wrapped up in gubernatorial politics," Assemblyman Charles Bader (R-Pomona) observed recently. "It's highly unfortunate we weren't able to sell last year's package; a non-gubernatorial election year was the time to do it."

Bader referred to SB 999, school construction legislation that was authored by a Democrat, Sen. Leroy Greene of Carmichael, but had strong Republican support as well.

Vetoed by Deukmejian

The bill passed both houses last year but was vetoed by Deukmejian because it would have cost the state General Fund $250 million the first year, $500 million the second year, and $750 million a year thereafter until the overcrowding problem was solved.

Deukmejian also questioned whether the construction need was as great as the $5 billion claimed by Greene and by the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a major school construction lobbying group with a disarmingly direct acronym, CASH.

After the veto, Deukmejian ordered the Department of Finance to survey the state's 1,000 school districts to determine the real need.

"Having listened to the experts, he decided to send out the amateurs," Greene said acidly.

The Finance Department survey concluded that there was a statewide need for more than $4 billion over a five-year period--$2.8 billion for new construction, $1 billion for renovation and $400 million to $500 million to air-condition and insulate classrooms so they could be used year-round.

On March 1, Deukmejian announced support for two $800-million bond issues--one next November and the second in November, 1988--to meet part of the multibillion-dollar construction need.

The governor also said $150 million a year in "tidelands" revenue--from oil leases in state coastal waters--would be used for new and rebuilt schools, although he has removed that amount from his proposed 1986-87 budget on the grounds that school districts could not spend the money fast enough.

State Contribution

Deukmejian said the state would pay 75% of the cost of new construction and 100% of renovation costs.

The plan includes little or no General Fund money, partly because the state is bumping up against a spending limit set by Proposition 4, a 1979 state constitutional amendment that limits state expenditures according to a formula based on inflation and population growth.

Complete details of the governor's program will be spelled out in a bill that Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) intends to introduce later this month.

If Deukmejian expected his plan to be greeted with jubilation, he must have been disappointed.

Greene said the governor is suggesting many of the ideas included in the bill he vetoed last October. "While I find it gratifying that he thinks so highly of my proposal, I'm puzzled why he vetoed it," the senator said.

Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said: "It's galling to have him stand up and say, 'School construction is one of my highest priorities,' when he vetoed (SB) 999 and took away $150 million in tidelands money."

But many school officials were pleased that Deukmejian offered a plan, whatever its deficiencies.

'Was on the Sidelines'

"At least the governor's in the game this year," said Byron Kimball, director of school facilities services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Last year, he was on the sidelines."

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Deukmejian's Democratic challenger, has had little to say so far in the campaign about the overcrowding issue. Some members of Bradley's staff suggest that the issue is too complex to be easily understood by voters. Bradley, moreover, is no more eager than Deukmejian to spend the billions that will be needed to solve the problem.

An added problem for school districts is the cumbersome process of obtaining state money to build a new school. It takes three to five years from the time a school district applies for a new building until the first shovel of dirt is turned.

State money--both tidelands royalties and bond money--is doled out by a State Allocation Board composed of legislators, the director of finance, the director of the General Services Administration and the superintendent of public instruction. It is allocated according to a system of "priority points" that is complicated beyond description.

Meanwhile, the Office of Local Assistance, part of the General Services Administration, processes applications from the school districts. In the last year, the Office of Local Assistance has doubled the rate at which it allocates money and is now approving $30 million to $35 million a month, but the backlog remains huge--about $1.7 billion. Los Angeles, for example, has applications totaling more than $500 million pending for new and rebuilt schools.

Process Criticized

Some legislators, like Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-Redlands), think the process is deliberately slow so the state can spend as little money as possible on new schools.

The biggest obstacle to school construction in 1986, however, is that neither party wants the other to take credit for a solution.

"I think we have general agreement on principles," said William L. Cunningham, the governor's education adviser. "The battle will be, unfortunately, whose name is on what bill, not the content."

The governor probably did not increase chances for passage of his program by selecting Seymour to carry the legislation. Seymour is chairman of the Republican Senate Caucus, which has targeted Greene for defeat in November. Meanwhile, any bipartisan agreement on a school construction bill will require Greene's approval.

Most people who follow the issue closely believe that when the battles between the governor and the Legislature end sometime next summer, the schools may have authority to seek voter approval for a bond issue but are unlikely to have any other relief from overcrowding.

Here is a look at the principal financing options for new and renovated schools under consideration in the Deukmejian plan and in the approximately 30 bills that already have been introduced in the Legislature to deal with school overcrowding:

BOND ISSUES

"We are counting heavily" on passage of an $800-million bond issue next November and another in November, 1988, to pay for the governor's program, said Bill van Gundy, a Finance Department official who has been working on the school construction problem.

But both Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. James W. Nielsen (R-Woodland), the minority floor leader, warn that too many measures requiring too much money are scheduled for next November's ballot.

"We're in a terrible mess on bond measures," Nielsen said, noting that six to eight issues, totaling $2 billion to $2.5 billion, may be up for voter approval.

"We generally estimate the public will tolerate about $1 billion on a single ballot," Roberti said. "After that, they vote 'no.' "

Greene said bond opponents will argue that money from the California Lottery should be used to build new schools, although such construction is specifically forbidden by lottery legislation.

In theory, school districts could transfer funds from operating budgets to construction budgets and then use lottery money for operating costs, but several administrators said they would be reluctant to do that because of the uncertainty of future lottery revenue.

Larry Gonzales, a member of the Los Angeles school board, has called for legislation that would allow school boards to use lottery income for construction. Gonzales estimated that the lottery will generate $290 million for Los Angeles over the next three years, enough to build 29 elementary schools of 1,000 pupils each.

TIDELANDS OIL

Royalties from oil produced in state territorial waters are supposed to yield $150 million a year for five years for public school construction and rehabilitation, but Deukmejian deferred the 1986-87 payment because, he said, districts could not spend the money fast enough.

Administration officials said there is about $280 million in unspent money in the tidelands fund now and that the state allocation process is so slow that there is no point in adding another $150 million in the coming year.

Instead, Deukmejian proposed to defer the money until 1990-91.

"That's a rabbit-in-the-hat trick," said David Christensen, deputy superintendent of schools in booming Moreno Valley and statewide president of CASH. "You slow down the system and then say we can't spend the money fast enough. The solution is not to take the money away but to streamline the process."

School officials also worry that the tidelands money might not be available in the amounts now planned because oil prices are dropping and because tidelands revenue is not subject to Proposition 4 limitations and therefore will be in greater demand for other state spending.

LOCAL MATCH

Deukmejian has called for a "partnership program," with the state contributing 75% of the cost of new school construction (and 100% of rehabilitation) and local districts coming up with the remaining 25%.

"The state just does not have the money to accommodate all school construction needs over the next five to 10 years," said Cunningham, the governor's education adviser. "It will have to be a partnership."

The Administration has suggested several possible sources for the 25% local match but is especially keen about "benefit assessment districts," in which those who own property in an area that supposedly benefits from a new school are assessed to pay its cost.

Such a district has been formed in the Sacramento area, but the assessments have been challenged in court on the grounds they violate Proposition 13.

Many believe the requirement for 25% in local money is unrealistic because school districts, deprived of the right they had before Proposition 13 to seek voter approval of local bond issues and tax overrides, have no source for the money.

"We are looking at an $800-million capital program over the next five years," said Kimball of the Los Angeles schools. "There's no way we can raise $200 million of our own money."

YEAR-ROUND OPERATION

Cunningham, the governor's education aide, said 25% to 33% of the projected $4-billion statewide construction need could be saved if school districts would convert to 12-month use of their facilities.

However, he added that year-round operation is "highly controversial and has cost more than one superintendent his job," so the option is "entirely voluntary" in the Deukmejian plan.

Cunningham suggested that the present $25-per-student financial incentive to school districts to operate year-round might be increased to $50 per elementary school pupil and to $75 for a high school student.

But Los Angeles school officials calculate that the cost of converting to a year-round calendar is about $150 per student.

DEVELOPER FEES

As other sources of construction money have dried up, many school districts, especially in fast-growing areas, have turned to "developer fees" imposed on builders of new homes and apartments and usually passed along to buyers and renters.

For years, builders and others have complained about these fees because they force many prospective buyers out of the market. And for cities such as Los Angeles, the fees are no solution because much of the enrollment bulge has not been caused by new construction but by increases in the number of children living in existing inner-city dwellings.

According to the Building Industry Assn., $9,000 in total fees--not an unusual amount when school fees are added to charges for roads, sewers, flood-control facilities, parks and other "infrastructure"--can add more than $100 a month to a 30-year mortgage on a $100,000 house.

In some parts of Orange and San Diego counties, school fees alone now exceed $6,000 per housing unit.

Deukmejian has proposed capping the fees at $2,000 per unit and applying the fee to commercial, as well as residential, construction.

A constitutional amendment introduced by Greene would eliminate the fees altogether but would exact a 1% tax on the value of all construction. The senator estimated that this would yield between $250 million and $300 million a year for school construction and rehabilitation.

But there is much opposition to both proposals.

"Our position is you can't give up or restrict developer fees until you have an adequate replacement," said Karen Steentofte, lobbyist for the California School Boards Assn.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°