Wilson to Seek Billions for School Construction


Gov. Pete Wilson will ask the Legislature this week to approve a massive school construction proposal that would raise $16 billion over the next six years to accommodate soaring enrollment, senior administration officials said Sunday.

His idea seeks to resolve a vexing problem for both rich and poor school districts--how to build new classrooms with just a patchwork of often uncertain funding sources.

Wilson would launch his construction plan by putting a $2-billion bond on this June’s ballot, followed by identical measures in each of the next three statewide election years. He would require local governments to generate the other half of the cost--another $8 billion--from various sources like local bonds, special taxing districts or developer fees.


The idea is the latest of several aimed at improving California’s sagging public education system. It got quick and enthusiastic support Sunday from Democrats, who hold the majority in the Legislature, which reconvenes today.

Many Democrats have offered similar proposals in recent years. Aides to Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) recommended Sunday that all $8 billion of the state’s share in construction costs be put on the ballot this year--not over the next six as Wilson has proposed.

“This is a very positive development and . . . it is good the governor is showing leadership on this,” said Sandy Harrison, Lockyer’s spokesman. “We have an immense need for school construction.”

The biggest obstacle to passing Wilson’s proposal, however, appeared to come from lawmakers within the Republican governor’s own party. That is because the governor’s plan includes a provision long opposed by many GOP lawmakers to lower the threshold for passing local school bonds from the current two-thirds’ majority of votes to a simple majority.

In November, 19 local school bond proposals failed although they received more than 50% of the vote. Twenty-six passed by getting more than 66% of the vote.

Currently, an 1879 amendment in the state Constitution requires a two-thirds’ majority vote for passage of any local bond. Statewide bonds can pass with a simple majority.

State schools Supt. Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who has long supported finance proposals similar to Wilson’s, said the strength of the governor’s support will determine whether his plan succeeds.

“The governor needs to put his shoulder to the wheel, but if he does, I think we can do this,” Eastin said.

Wilson is scheduled to announce his school plan this week when he gives the traditional State of the State address Wednesday. More details will come Friday when the governor is scheduled to release his proposal for the state’s 1998-99 fiscal year budget. Wilson hopes the Legislature will act on his plan this month, giving him time to place the first bond measure on the June ballot.

Over the past weekend, Wilson administration officials have briefed reporters about some of the most significant proposals the governor will announce in his speeches.

In addition to school financing, officials have already said Wilson wants to lengthen the school year from the current average of about 175 days to 180. Tapping the fruits of a strong economy, he will also seek more assistance for senior citizens, such as funds to help the elderly receive care at home rather than in nursing homes.

Today, administration officials are expected to reveal plans for dealing with the state’s ongoing water wars and some of its environmental issues. Also, in addition to the school bonds, Wilson is expected to propose new bond sales for prison construction and new water storage projects.

In the briefing Sunday morning, Wilson administration officials said they are optimistic about passing the school financing package despite the complaints from GOP lawmakers. “Republicans are realistic too, and education is an important issue, and we are in an election year,” one suggested.

But the issue revealed a clear rift within the GOP that seemed headed for a high-stakes showdown between the governor and his own party.

Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino) said he will “respectfully disagree” with the governor. He said the GOP caucus is solidly opposed to any change in the voting threshold for local bonds. He also predicted the minority caucus would block the governor’s plan because--as an amendment to the state Constitution--it needs two-thirds’ support of the Legislature.

“Assembly Republicans are well-versed on this issue,” he said. “I haven’t found one supporter for any change.”

Leonard said there was support for all of the other elements in the governor’s school construction plan.

California voters have already approved nearly $10 billion for school bonds in the past 15 years--including a $2-billion plan in 1996. But state officials say more money is needed for grades K-12 to keep up with the state’s expanding school-age population. While the number of state residents has increased about 10% since 1990, they said, the number of people under 18 has grown at triple that rate.

Enrollment has jumped 28% since 1982, and it is anticipated to grow almost 20% more over the decade that began in 1996. A report by the state Finance Department last year estimated that it will cost $22 billion over the next 10 years to meet the state’s school construction needs.

Some of Wilson’s plan came from a recommendation developed last year by the leading association of home developers and the state’s largest teachers union.

The home builders have been frustrated by local plans to finance new school construction by imposing fees on new homes. In Orange County, where there is little political appetite for bond measures, local officials have attached up to $9,000 to the cost of a new home to help pay for schools.

Wilson’s proposal would cap the amount that developers could be forced to pay for new school construction, a provision that is controversial with some Democrats.

The governor’s plan would also recognize that some school districts will not be able to generate their 50% share of the construction costs. Each of his $2-billion bonds would set aside $200 million for those cases.