Conferees Seek Solutions to Classroom Crunch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every year, school building experts do the math and reach the same result: The number of new students needing classrooms plus the number of older schools needing repairs equal a demand for school facility investment far exceeding what the state spends.

On Friday, a statewide group of educators and school builders called the Coalition for Adequate School Housing wrapped up a two-day conference here seeking answers to that dilemma.

Most of the 265 people attending at the Doubletree Hotel agreed that the state's school system needs a major infusion of dollars through voter-approved bonds. But first they must overcome a stalemate in Sacramento.

The issue is acute in Orange County; schools are limiting many elementary classes to 20 students per teacher in an effort to boost reading and math scores. Capistrano Unified School District, with 40,000 students, is the fastest-growing large school system at the state, with enrollment rising at 7% a year.

In 52,000-student Santa Ana Unified School District, the average annual enrollment growth of about 2,000 students could fill three new elementary schools. But Mike Vail, a Santa Ana Unified planning official and a board member of the statewide coalition, said the district is adding only one or two schools a year.

"We've just about used up the options available," Vail said. "We keep falling farther behind."

The coalition supports a four-bill package that the state Legislature failed to act on before its fall recess but which proponents hope to revive in January. The bills would:

* Put a constitutional amendment before state voters to allow a simple majority vote for local school bonds, instead of the current two-thirds majority required;

* Put an $8.2-billion school bond on a statewide ballot, of which $6 billion would be earmarked for K-12 schools and $2.2 billion for public colleges and universities;

* Reshape the process for districts to apply for state construction money; and

* Cap developer fees at $3 per square foot by Jan. 1, 2000, with certain exceptions.

Even those measures wouldn't satisfy all educators, proponents acknowledge. Some are concerned about the proposed limits on developer fees, a prime source of revenue in many fast-growing suburban districts.

But a constitutional amendment allowing a simple majority vote would represent a major victory for local school bond proponents. That measure, key to the deal, has been blocked by Republicans in the Assembly.

"My message to the group is 'Look, I have the best [deal] I can put together when everybody is equally dissatisfied,' " said state Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael), one of the main backers of the package. He addressed the conference Friday morning.

Some education leaders said the best strategy might be to craft another proposal acceptable to the Republican-led Assembly.

"This deal is dead," said Kevin Gordon, associate executive director of the California School Boards Assn., speaking of the four-bill package. "It is hinged to elements that don't have votes in the Capitol."

But coalition leaders here exhorted their members to lobby Sacramento for the package.

"Remember, it's still in front of the Legislature. It's not dead," said Terry Bradley, chair of the coalition. "Everyone's hopeful that something will take place in the next several months that will benefit schools."

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