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Schools Try to Bond With Voters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Huntington Beach High School, once a palace, now looks every bit its 92 years.

Peeling paint and crumbling concrete are the obvious blemishes. Bathroom plumbing doesn’t work, the heating and air-conditioning systems have malfunctioned for the last three years, and the 13-member maintenance crew cannot get the place to look clean despite a daily scrubbing. Boarded up and padlocked is a pool that was drained five years ago because officials couldn’t afford to maintain it.

Visitors to the school ask Principal Jim Staunton: “This is such a beautiful campus; why does it look so bad?”

To finance $100 million in long-delayed repairs needed at the high school and the seven other campuses in the Huntington Beach Union High School District, officials are considering whether to wage what could be one of their toughest battles: asking taxpayers to vote for a local bond issue. The last time a similar measure passed anywhere in the county was in 1975, county officials said.

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One Buena Park district has already decided to take such a plunge. Last week, school board members voted to add a $13.8 million bond referendum to the Nov. 3 ballot. Officials in Laguna Beach and Anaheim also are mulling their options.

Nearly every district across California is facing millions of dollars in needed improvements. A booming birthrate is causing enrollments to swell. Curriculum changes are forcing schools to wire for Internet use and redo science labs. The state-mandated class-size reduction program requires more classroom space. Years of thin budgets, which some say were spurred by Proposition 13, have resulted in widespread neglect of maintenance and repairs.

About 60% of the 8,000 public schools statewide are more than 30 years old, said Fred Yeager, a consultant on facilities with the state Department of Education.

“Obviously, older schools have more years of wear and tear,” he said. “But even a 10-year-old school has needs.”

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State law demands that two-thirds of voters approve local bond referendums instead of just a majority. But Orange County districts face an even greater challenge asking for a tax increase in a fiscally conservative environment.

This year, in a roaring economy, 51 of 81 bond initiatives statewide passed, according to Sacramento-based School Services of California, a lobbying and consulting firm. The only one held in Orange County, a $48-million bond referendum for the Anaheim City School District, failed June 2.

John F. Dean, the county superintendent, said that upgrading school buildings is one of the top--if not the top--issue facing educators, given the predictions of major population growth.

“People in Orange County really like their schools,” Dean said, “but . . . when they’re asked to come up with more money, nobody wants to give.”

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Most districts don’t even ask. Fountain Valley schools are under repair all summer long, but only because of the recent sale of an old school building. Nine roofs are being repaired, heaters are being replaced and energy-efficient lighting fixtures are being installed.

Without the $7-million sale--most of the proceeds, by law, must be used for physical improvements--the refurbishments would not have been considered, said Paul Burkart, an assistant superintendent at the 6,057-student elementary district.

In Buena Park this week, school board members, administrators and consultants spent more than an hour weighing the issues and posing questions that are being asked by educators around the state:

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“How much are people willing to spend?”

“Which improvements qualify for state aid and which don’t?”

“Do we have support from the school community? What about the City Council?”

In the end, they decided to go for it. The district serves 5,200 students in six elementary schools and one middle school that are more than 30 years old. Only the junior high school has benefited from some minimal renovations, school officials said.

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“The climate is right, the economy is right, we need to do it,” said Lloyd G. Davis, a school board member.

Huntington Beach high schools must overcome the additional obstacle of eliminating opposition from its traditional core support: parents. They blame school administrators for failing to make repairs over a period of years; district officials said they didn’t have the money to make repairs.

“We believe that money is not being spent appropriately at this time,” said Sherri Brash, a PTA co-president at Marina High School, who readily concedes that the campus has deteriorated. Parents also have criticized the schools for not buying new textbooks.

“There is not a good vision in the district for long-term planning,” she said.

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The school board in Laguna Beach manages four buildings that are at least 30 years old, including two overcrowded elementary schools that have never been renovated. Officials in the Laguna district, one of the smallest in the county but in one of the wealthiest communities, also are researching whether to hold a bond election sometime in 1999.

About 30 residents are being asked to join the school board’s modernization committee, which will tour the district’s four schools and analyze what needs to be done by the end of the year, including whether to try a bond measure.

“If things look favorable, it could be the spring of next year,” said Robert J. Whalen, a school board member.

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The usual plumbing, painting, heating and cooling problems are especially acute at El Morro and Top of the World elementary schools. Burgeoning enrollments there as well as the state program that limits K-3 classes to 20 students has created a space crunch. The district also is way behind in its technology wiring for all schools, Whalen said.

He said that the district has a big job ahead of it, convincing the community that the schools need help.

“There’s not a good sense of what the condition of the schools is,” he said. “The perception is we’re in a high-wealth area, we must have good schools.”

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No matter how much effort school administrators put into a bond measure, for more than two decades in Orange County, the measures have failed.

“We’ve really tried to do everything we can to make the community aware of the problems here,” said Sandra Barry, an assistant superintendent at the Anaheim City School District, where just 55.5% of voters--far short of the 67% required--voted for the $48-million bond issue last month.

Given the outcome at the polls, educators in the largest of four Anaheim elementary school districts said they have not decided when, or if, they will ask voters again to increase taxes.

But their alternatives are grim. The district, which serves nearly 20,000 children, operates year-round schools and has staggered sessions to accommodate growing enrollments. The bond issue would have paid for construction of three new schools and repairs at the 22 existing schools.

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