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Massive Measure Q is an old-school package

Blume is a Times staff writer.

The case for $7-billion Measure Q, the largest local school bond in state history, goes something like this: Now that the school district has built dozens of new campuses, it needs and deserves more dollars to fix up the old ones.

Exhibit A for this argument is brand-new Helen Bernstein High in Hollywood, with a pool, dance studio, energy-efficient windows, the latest in computers, ceiling-mounted projectors, up-to-date science labs and a sprinkler-cooled artificial turf playing field.

In contrast, at Hollenbeck Middle School, east of downtown, students endure noisy air conditioners, an asphalt playground, an undersized gym, windows painted over to reduce glare and science labs without student work stations. Conditions are more make-do than state-of-the-art.

“We tell these kids that schooling is about their future, and then we put them in spaces that need dramatic change,” said Marshall Tuck, a top education advisor for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “We need facilities that feel welcoming and are well-kept. What signal are we sending by the actual shape these buildings are in?”

Criticism of the bond focuses on the district’s skyrocketing building costs, disagreements over priorities and the haste behind Measure Q itself, whose price tag more than doubled in the final days before the Board of Education placed it on the ballot July 31.

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The fifth school bond in 11 years for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Measure Q will compete with other property tax increases on the November ballot.

For L.A. Unified, Measure Q represents a bid for a dependable longer-term funding stream for a $20.3-billion construction and modernization program, the nation’s largest, which has so far delivered more than 75,000 classroom seats.

The stakes are clearly high.

Seven district representatives, including school board President Monica Garcia, were on hand this month for a Hollenbeck walk-through with a lone reporter. And because Hollenbeck is among 10 low-performing schools overseen by Villaraigosa, four members of his school-reform team, including Tuck, also took part.

Since 1997, when Los Angeles voters passed the first of four recent school bonds, the mission of the measures has evolved. In the first years, the money was used primarily to repair campuses that were falling apart in a school system that had last passed a bond in 1963. Then, the focus shifted mainly to constructing new schools.

By 2004, the objective became eliminating involuntary busing and year-round schedules that shorten students’ academic year by 17 school days.

Although it also would establish funds for new buildings, Measure Q returns to the 1997 goal: fixing things up and ensuring the new stuff doesn’t break down.

To be sure, conditions have improved, even at the district’s older schools.

In the last decade, Hollenbeck has received $7.3 million in upgrades and repairs, covering painting, plumbing, lighting, fencing, flooring and more. Projects totaling an additional $4.2 million are in progress, including fire alarms, air conditioning and food-service upgrades. And even without a new bond, $370,000 in other work is scheduled.

But Tuck espouses an atmospheric upgrade -- from a school environment that, he said, appears to tolerate less than the best to one that inspires excellence. Hollenbeck’s , he suggested, are partly a reflection of the school environment. Elevating the setting is especially vital to student success in gang-plagued and economically depressed areas, he said.

To provide individual attention, hundreds of millions of dollars would be used to convert existing campuses into clusters of small schools. Officials also designated $250 million to update cafeterias. The bond also includes $500 million for green technology such as renewable energy systems, $450 million for charter schools and about $2 billion for still-unspecified needs.

The bond’s total doubled at the 11th hour as part of a Villaraigosa-backed compromise that provided more dollars to charter schools in exchange for charter leaders’ agreement not to oppose the measure.

Critics, including longtime education activist Gene Krischer, said the bond’s doubling epitomizes a program that has been too free-wheeling with other people’s money.

“The kids are getting something, but I don’t think they and the taxpayer are getting their money’s worth,” said Krischer, who tracks bond-oversight meetings on behalf of a Sierra Club chapter. “The district could be building at a more reasonable cost.”

For some, one such manifestation is the landmark arts high school under construction downtown, which so far is costing about $1,000 per square foot. That doesn’t include about $190 million spent to move the school district’s headquarters, which once occupied that site.

In general, the bond program’s costs also are driven up by such factors as the district’s insistence on paying union wages, its local contractor training program, its community outreach effort for selecting school sites and its aim to build schools that also can be used as community recreation centers.

One widely used measure of construction efficiency is the number of change orders, which are costs that result from alterations or unforeseen conditions. The district’s first set of 146 projects in the current new schools program had a change-order rate of 11.3%, higher than the industry average. Finishing Bernstein High required $14.5 million in change orders that added 22.6% to the original price tag.

But the school, which opened this fall, has other issues too. It all but overlooks the 101 Freeway on land acquired before district safety experts decided that particulates from freeways represented too great a hazard. And the design of the cafeteria is outdated.

During a recent press tour, L.A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer had trouble getting past that cafeteria.

“Where’s the heat?” he said, referring to the lack of equipment for keeping hot food hot. “Where the flow?” he added, noting that the layout might leave students at the back of the line with too little time to eat.

Measure Q could address those deficiencies for about $200,000, and it could help pay for air filters to screen out particulates.

Both issues are lessons learned, which are being applied elsewhere, said Guy Mehula, the head of facilities. And the percentage of change orders is declining.

Back at Hollenbeck, Tuck gestured toward the sea of blacktop that passes for the school’s playground. He said he envisions grass and trees in its place. Three years ago, the district spent $519,000 to add another layer of paving.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

More on Measure Q at the Homeroom blog: latimes.com/thehomeroom.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Biggest bond yet

The $7-billion Measure Q, the fifth school bond over 11 years for the L.A. Unified School District, would be paid off through property tax increases. It requires 55% voter approval to pass on Nov. 4. The figures here combine fees for the proposed measure with those already in place to pay off the district’s previous bonds.

Span of repayment: Through 2044

Highest rates: About $185 for every $100,000 of assessed property value

Estimated peak tax for property assessed at $300,000: $555

Span of highest rates: Nine years, starting in 2012

Lowest rate: $1.39 per $100,000 of assessed value in 2044

Source: L.A. Unified / Times reporting


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