For the second time in a decade, the cash-strapped Santa Ana Unified School District is asking voters to approve a construction bond to fund improvements to its school buildings.
The $200-million bond, Measure G on Tuesday's ballot, would make the district eligible for up to $120 million in state matching funds to ease overcrowding.
Officials say they would use the sum to replace portable classrooms with permanent buildings at 14 schools and fund repairs and upgrades at most of the district's 63 schools.
The measure received widespread support from local politicians, but because two of five school board members voted against placing it on the ballot -- citing concerns over fiscal responsibility -- two-thirds of voters must approve for the bond to pass.
The district offered the bond as a last-minute way to overhaul its schools in a year when a severe statewide budget crunch threatens school funding. The district is anticipating a $31-million budget cut for the coming school year and has sent layoff notices to hundreds of teachers. The district must have its construction plans filed with the state by August to qualify for state matching funds.
After years of growth, Orange County's largest school district saw its enrollment decline by more than 7,000 over the last five years, causing a steady loss of state funds that are based on average daily attendance. And although the 55,000-student district built three high schools and two elementary schools in the last nine years, more than two dozen of its schools remain overcrowded.
The bond money would not be used to build new schools or pay for teaching or operating expenses.
Although the situation is less than ideal, board president Jose Alfredo Hernandez said, "it would be foolish for us to turn away any money that can come into the district just because it's is not addressing our No. 1 need, which is teachers."
Critics point out that the amount of state money is not guaranteed, even if the bond passes, because some of the money is awarded competitively. They also question the district's management of a $145-million bond voters approved in 1999, when officials promised to build 13 new schools. After spending $450 million, including matching funds, the district built only five schools.
"No one is arguing whether we need the money or not. The real question is, is there a plan to spend it efficiently and effectively?" asked board member John Palacio, who voted against placing Measure G on the ballot. "If somebody misspent your money, would you go back to them and ask them to spend it again?"
After the last bond passed, construction costs soared and the district found it needed fewer new schools than planned because enrollment went down, said Assistant Supt. Joe Dixon, who is in charge of district facilities. He said nine audits showed that funds were spent appropriately.
District officials said they are forming a bond oversight committee even though the state does not require it, as a sign they will be held accountable on spending.
Although there is no organized opposition to the bond, its supporters have raised more than $200,000 in campaign donations, mostly from contractors doing business with the district.
Board member Rosie Avila said she opposed the bond because it would burden property owners with higher taxes during a housing market crisis and could lead to rent hikes in Santa Ana.
"These are hard times and this is just adding more debt," she said, suggesting that the district readjust each school's attendance boundaries and distribute students among schools more evenly to alleviate overcrowding.
The 25-year bond would cost an average homeowner $1,875, or about $75 a year, said Mark McLoughlin, co-chairman of Santa Ana K.I.D.S. 2008, the pro-bond group.
"That's a very small investment for people to have quality schools," he said.
Supporters of the bond have been sending mailers, posting signs, making phone calls and walking neighborhoods to promote the measure; they planned to hold a final rally today at a local bookstore.
"We're just trying to get our fair share of statewide taxes into the community," McLoughlin said.