Local Vote Threshold Key to Balancing Funding

State Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo) represents portions of Ventura County

No education issue has greater long-term implications than funding for the growth and modernization of school facilities.

A broad-based school-building program has been embraced by Gov. Pete Wilson and all but a few members of the state Assembly. This four-part package would balance funding among developers, new homeowners and local and state-taxpayers. It includes a cap on developer fees, streamlining of the state's school construction program and combined state and local general obligation bonds to match the contributions of developers and homeowners.

This reform package is designed to fully fund the more than $40 billion needed to build and modernize our schools over the next 10 years and ensure that funding of school construction is balanced among taxpayers at all levels.

A critical element is an amendment to the state Constitution that would allow for local school bonds to be approved by a majority vote rather than the current two-thirds requirement.

To understand the facility dilemma facing California, one must understand the numbers that form the foundation of the legislative deliberations. The number of students attending our public elementary and secondary schools will grow by 1 million by the year 2005. The classrooms needed by these 6.4 million students will cost $15 billion--nearly equal to the number of schools that currently exist in all of Oregon and Colorado.

Compounding the tremendous growth of our schools is age. Not only do they look the same as in 1975, the year I entered my first Ventura County high school classroom as a teacher, they still look the way they did in 1956, when I entered public school as a kindergartner.

More than 60% of our existing schools are more than 30 years old and lack the necessary infrastructure to plug in even one computer, let alone a fully equipped technology lab. The cost to modernize, repair and retrofit these classrooms over the next 10 years is $22 billion.

Not only are they antiquated, but our classrooms still house far more students than were ever intended. And even with our class-size reduction program, California still ranks last among the states--averaging 30 students per class. If we are serious about reducing the number of students in each class, we must have additional classrooms in which to teach them, which will make the total need for classroom dollars $40 billion.

In addition to funds needed for our elementary and secondary schools, Wilson's Department of Finance has projected nearly $60 billion in capital outlay and infrastructure needs for our college and university campuses, prisons, transportation, parks and recreational facilities.

Using what many believe to be the most reasonable debt service ratio for the state--6%--to retire general obligation bonds, we can issue no more than $5 billion in bonds per year over the next three years to fund these tremendous needs in our physical plant. This leaves the state several billion dollars short.

By contrast, the unused debt capacity of our local schools tops $32 billion, yet a minority of voters stands in the way of the schools' ability to tap into this unused resource. Although a few school districts have asked local voters for help, the unfair reality is that it takes two votes cast in the affirmative for every one person voting no to pass a local school bond.

Unfortunately, although a majority says yes, because of the old two-thirds vote provision, few efforts succeed. Since 1986, more than 400 general obligation bonds have been attempted by school districts across the state. Overall, 55% failed to achieve a two-thirds vote. However, 91% received a majority.

The most poignant local examples are Thousand Oaks and Moorpark. Each attempted two bond measures in the past year; all fell short.

Many districts don't even try because they know they would be hard-pressed to gain the two-thirds vote.

We can remedy this dilemma by amending the state Constitution to allow local bonds to be approved by the same majority requirement we have for bonds at the state level, done in concert with other reforms.

Along with reforms to the state school construction program, the capping of developer fees and state bonds structured to match the local contributions of developers and homeowners, our proposed change in the local vote threshold would ensure that school construction funding is balanced and that schools throughout the state have equal resources and that taxpayers throughout the state contribute equally.

It is just as unfair for the homeowners to rely 100% on statewide general obligation bonds and developer fees to fund their schools as it would be to rely 100% on local general obligation bonds and homeowners to fund their school needs.

It would be a shame if we left Sacramento this year with nothing more to show for our efforts than a school bond as a temporary Band-Aid for our burgeoning and / or crumbling schools.

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