California's school facilities need a shot in the arm

July 27, 2012

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California’s school facilities need an infusion of $117 billion during the next decade, with close to half of the funding needed to replace or repair existing schools, according to a report by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools.

Oakland Unified School District’s new Downtown Educational Complex will house an elementary school, a high school, a health clinic, the district’s educational TV station, and a child development center. The first phase of the project is scheduled to open at the start of the fall 2012 school year. A construction bond approved by Oakland voters is funding the work. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Kathryn Baron)

The report, released this week, called on state leaders to develop a comprehensive school facilities master plan that will address past inequities in funding among school districts, involve districts in regional land use planning to reduce greenhouse gases, and promote partnerships with cities, nonprofits, and private firms.

Jeffrey Vincent, the lead author of the report and deputy director of the center, acknowledged that it will be difficult for the state and local school districts to set aside money for facilities in this tough economic climate. In fact, he noted, districts have been raiding their school maintenance funds to reduce the number of layoffs and keep class sizes from growing even larger.

“Admittedly it’s a ginormous, crazy number,” he said. “But now we have a benchmark out there for bringing all buildings up to some minimum standard.” It’s not, he noted, “a solid gold standard.”

Right now, he says, state leaders should focus on developing a plan “to figure out how we as a state would come up with these funds to meet the needs out there in the next decade.”

Funding could come from partnerships with cities, nonprofits, or private housing developers who understand that the success of their development can depend on the quality of local schools. But, Vincent acknowledged, state funding will still be needed. State leaders, he said, have been discussing putting a statewide school facilities bond on the ballot in 2014.

“This is a good year to get the issues on the table – determine what should be in the bond and how the pie should be divided,” Vincent said.

The report’s recommendations differ substantially from how bond money has been spent in the past when the state was growing and new construction was a priority, he said. Instead, the report calls for:

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, whose department commissioned the report, chose to unveil the report during a press conference at Oakland Unified’s new state-of-the-art Escuelita Elementary School, which will be part of a community center that includes a child development center, a high school, and a health clinic. The schools will also boast the latest technology.

However, Vincent said, there is a big gap between such wired schools and those with aging infrastructure. Updating technology “is an absolutely really important piece,” he said.

The report also emphasized that intergovernmental planning is key to creating schools, such as Escuelita, that can also be used as community centers. Planning should consider quality-of-life issues such as fresh water, good indoor air quality, and insulation that reduces noise levels, according to the report. Schools should be located within urban communities so they can be easily reached by walking or bicycling, in the same way that cities are now attempting to put housing and jobs near each other and near mass transportation to reduce the need for commuting, the report notes.

Besides the California Department of Education, the report was also funded by the California Endowment and the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley.

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