(Update: On Thursday, the full Assembly passed AB 2235 by a vote of 75-0, sending it to the Senate for consideration.)
The Assembly Appropriations Committee has finally put a dollar figure to a school construction bond measure that it wants to place on the November ballot: $9 billion.
Voter approval to issue new 30-year construction bonds would be the first state financing for facilities for K-12 schools and higher education since voters passed a $10.4 billion school construction in 2006. Of the proposed $9 billion, $6 billion would go for K-12 facilities modernization (split $3.25 billion for modernization, $2.25 billion for new construction and $500 million for charter school facilities); $2 billion for community college facilities and $500 million each for the University of California and California State University. According to an analysis by the Appropriations Committee, the bond would meet a small piece of the tens of billions in new or renovated building needs that K-12 districts and higher education systems say they need.
Last Friday, with a 16-0 vote (with Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly, R-Hisperia abstaining), the committee passed Assembly Bill 2235, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo), who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, and Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills. Since 1998, state voters have approved $35 billion for school construction that has cost the state $2.4 billion in annual debt service, according to the Department of Finance. However, funds in the School Facility Program, which regulates how funds are distributed, are now depleted.
As with past bond measures, school districts would have to pony up their own money to get state funding. For upgrading buildings, districts must contribute 40 percent of the cost. For new construction, it’s a 50-50 split with the state.
There is no statewide inventory of school districts’ facilities, but Buchanan estimates that the proposed bond measure would take care of districts’ needs for about five years. Some of the money would help clear out the backlog of districts that have passed local bonds with the expectation of matching money. “I get calls constantly from districts that say they would have to cut back on projects they need” without state funding, she said. “There are 50-year-old schools in need of repair and schools without technology. The job is not done yet.”
With bipartisan support in the Assembly and a coalition of the building trades unions, the construction industry and business and education groups behind a new school bond, Buchanan is confident of getting a two-thirds majority approval in the Legislature to put the measure on the ballot.
Winning Gov. Jerry Brown’s backing, however, could prove harder. In the state budget he proposed in January, Brown dedicated $188 million of one-time money to reimburse districts for emergency repairs. At the same time, he criticized the current system of funding K-12 construction and indicated he was re-evaluating schools facilities funding, “including consideration of what role, if any, the state should play in the future of school facilities funding” (see page 7 of K-12 budget summary). He said the current system of facilities approval is too complex and does not allow districts enough flexibility for non-standard building and classroom designs. He questioned the first-come, first-served system of funding, saying it favors large districts. And he said the current system may encourage districts to overstate their space needs.
Buchanan said that she has met with Department of Finance officials and is open to clarifying the bill to address issues that Brown raised. The governor hasn’t indicated whether he would support a bond of any size this year, she said.
Buchanan said her bill does deal with several issues the governor raised. Districts would have to re-establish their eligibility by recalculating their building needs, using updated attendance projections and accounting for all new construction and renovations since the last state bond measure. And she said the bill would require that the Office of School Construction recommend regulations providing school districts with flexibility in designing facilities.
AB 2235 does not propose giving funding priority to school districts with large numbers of high-needs students. However, it does allow for full state funding of facilities in financially stressed districts that lack the capacity to take on additional debt.