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New schools may get bond funds

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles school district officials want to close most of a staggering deficit in the school-construction program by using more than $1 billion in bond money that was meant for other purposes. The Los Angeles Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the shift today.

The proposal, expected to pass, would use for new schools money that would have repaired and modernized existing schools, improved Internet access and other technology on campuses, and built and repaired preschool centers. Instead, the funds will backfill the plan to build 145 schools in an effort to provide all students with a neighborhood campus that operates on a traditional two-semester schedule.

The $20-billion construction and modernization program is the nation’s largest and frequently touted as a seminal accomplishment. But the effort has run up against spiraling increases in property values and construction costs.

“Our hope here is that this is just a borrowing, if you will, of those funds” and the original programs “will be finished sometime in the future with other funds, whether they be from future bond measures or from other sources,” said Edwin Van Ginkel, senior development manager for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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Van Ginkel added that the bond’s wording allows for such a transfer.

But the fine print of ballot resolutions is not enough, said Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights.

“Politicians will try to use whatever money is on hand to fill any hole they have,” Court said. “And in those cases they’re often very flexible with ‘the voter’s intent’ when the voter’s intent wasn’t that elastic. Politicians can’t lawfully seize on the fine print to use money where that use was not made explicitly clear.”

When voters passed Measure Y in 2005, they authorized nearly $4 billion in school bonds. The breakdown included $1.6 billion for new schools, $1.48 billion for existing schools, $325 million for technology and $100 million for early education.

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The resolution before the school board would take $790 million from repair of existing schools, $200 million from technology and $60 million from early education. Each cut is greater than half of the bond money allocated.

Van Ginkel said the loss would not be felt for perhaps two years, because of money left from other bond measures and elsewhere.

But he acknowledged that from the start, the backlog of district needs surpassed all available funding. No local school bonds had been approved for 34 years before four won passage starting in 1997.

“We’re building to make up for 20 years where the district built very few new schools,” he said, adding that enrollment grew by 226,000 students from 1980 to 2002. In the past, he said, the district got by with 10,000 portable classrooms, a year-round schedule and involuntary busing.

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District staff members cite both progress and continued needs. The number of year-round schools has declined from 227 to 142. In 2002, 16,000 students were bused out involuntarily, compared with 6,600 now. It helps that since 2003, enrollment declined from 747,000 to less than 700,000.

Even after all the planned construction, tens of thousands of students will still attend classes in portables.

Justifications aside, a promise to voters is a promise, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “There was a factual determination that over a billion dollars was needed to renovate schools where students are going right now. To take money away from that seems a fundamental violation of public trust.”

The point is not lost on Scott Folsom, vice-chair of the district’s bond oversight committee.

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Even after the new schools are built, he said, 80% to 90% of students will be attending schools that exist today.

“Just as we didn’t build schools for 20 or 30 years, we also didn’t keep them up,” he said.

Still, the oversight committee approved the transfer last week. Its decision is not binding on the school board, which rarely goes against such recommendations.

Folsom foresees another difficult juncture approaching: “We are going to need to go to the voters at some point in the future -- not that far away -- to ask for more money.”

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howard.blume@latimes.com


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