No compromise reached; Governor opposes California school bond

February 12, 2016

Update: The article was updated on Feb. 12 with two corrections, found at the end. 

With no time left to agree on an alternative, Gov. Jerry Brown made it official on Thursday: He will oppose Proposition 51, a $9 billion school construction bond that a coalition of school districts and school developers has placed on the November election ballot.

Brown called the bond initiative “a blunderbuss effort that promotes sprawl and squanders money that would be far better spent in low-income communities,” in a statement on Thursday.

Brown previously had called for an end to state funding of bonds for school construction in line with his commitment to lower the state’s long-term debt. But at a press conference on the proposed 2016-17 state budget last month, he said he’d be willing to discuss placing a smaller bond than $9 billion on the June primary election ballot as long as it also changed the formula and process for distributing money to school districts.

Brown administration officials and representatives of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, or CASH, sponsors of the initiative, had been negotiating on an alternative measure, but were unable to reach an agreement, Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff for the Speaker of the Assembly Toni Atkins, said on Friday. The deadline for passing a measure to put on the June ballot is Tuesday, and there are no plans to bring a plan to a vote before then, he said.

Voters last passed a state-funded construction bond in 2006. The state has run out of money to hand out, with about $2 billion dollars worth of state-approved district projects waiting for funding. Under CASH’s initiative, about $2 billion would be dedicated to community colleges and the rest divided among K-12 districts, charter schools and technical education partnerships. It would continue the requirement for a local match, with the state paying dollar for dollar for new construction projects and 60 percent of the cost of modernization and renovation projects.

CASH’s initiative has strong support; backers include the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, the California Chamber of Commerce, more than 100 school boards and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. But Brown’s strong condemnation of the plan will make it harder to pass. Voters have approved $35 billion worth of state-funded bonds since 1998, but all of those measures were placed on the ballot by the Legislature, with governors’ support.

In a statement, David Walrath, spokesman for the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, said, “California is facing at least $20 billion in projected school facilities needs over the next decade, and we have sponsored this bond to make sure school districts can continue to partner with the state to create quality learning environments for all students.”

Brown has called for reforming the formula for handing out the state’s share of construction costs, which is now done on a first-come, first served basis. That system favors wealthy districts and big districts, like Los Angeles Unified, with large facilities staff who can get the applications done quickly, according to the administration.

In his 2015 budget summary, Brown called for limiting state construction support to districts with the greatest financial need. He suggested raising the statutory limit on a how property owners can be taxed for school bonds, relative to a property’s assessment. And he proposed increasing fees that primarily housing developers pay and for making them uniform. Under state law, developers can be charged fees for school construction, based on the impact that their new homes will have on schools.

In November, the Center for Cities + Schools in the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley released an analysis of the school construction program that also called for changes in the formula to provide more money for low-income, low-property-wealth districts. But the wording of CASH’s initiative prohibits the Legislature from modifying the language and the terms of its initiative.

Corrections: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that CASH had agreed to withdraw its initiative as a condition of a potential compromise. CASH reports this was not so. Also, while many individual district school boards have endorsed the initiative, the California School Boards Association had not taken a position. 

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