Credit: Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today
Yes on Prop. 51 supporters, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, gather outside Parkside Elementary in Pittsburg on Oct. 12.

A decade after the passage of California’s last school construction bond measure, voters will have a chance to approve Proposition 51 on the November ballot. The measure will authorize the state to issue $9 billion in new bonds to pay for what supporters say are urgently needed repairs and renovation of existing schools, as well as construction of new ones. The money would be used to pay for charter school facilities, vocational education facilities, and community college construction and renovation.

About $7 billion would be spent on K-12 schools, with an additional $2 billion set aside for community colleges. Of the $7 billion, $3 billion would pay for new construction, $3 billion would go toward modernization, $500 million would be earmarked for charter schools and another $500 million would fund career technical education facilities.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the measure would cost the state $8.6 billion in interest over 35 years, with annual payments of about $500 million.

A September Public Policy Institute of California poll showed 47 percent of likely voters in the state supported the measure, 43 percent opposed it and 10 percent were undecided.

So far nearly $12 million has been spent to support the initiative, and none against it, according to figures from the California Secretary of State. 

Until now, school construction bonds have been placed on the ballot by the Legislature, and have generally received backing from voters. The last time was in 2006, when voters approved a $10.4 billion bond measure.

But in this case, Gov. Jerry Brown has vigorously opposed Prop. 51. He blasted the measure last February, calling it a “blunderbuss effort that promotes sprawl and squanders money that would be far better spent in low-income communities.”

Proponents were unable to reach agreement with Brown and the Legislature on a compromise measure. As a result, Californians for Quality Schools – sponsored and funded by the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (CASH) and the California Building Industry Association – collected nearly 366,000 signatures to place the measure as an initiative on the November ballot.

According to its website, CASH “was founded in 1978 to promote, develop, and support state and local funding for K-12 construction,” and its members are representatives of “1,500 school districts, county offices and private sector businesses” including “modular building manufacturers, contractors, developers, and others that are in the school facilities industry.”

Besides construction and labor interests, including the California Building Industry Association and the California Labor Federation, other supporters include elected officials from both major parties, such as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, numerous school districts, the California State PTA, the California Chamber of Commerce and many local chambers of commerce.

Justine Fischer, president of the California State PTA; Chris Ungar, President of the California School Boards Association and the Larry Galizio, CEO of the Community College League of California are all signatories of the arguments supporting the measure in the voters handbook. 

The money would be used to match construction funds raised by districts, with the state expected to pay half of new construction costs and 60 percent of renovation costs.

“It’s been 10 years since we’ve had an opportunity for the voters to fill up the coffers of matching funds,” Torlakson said during a campaign event at Parkside Elementary in Pittsburg in Contra Costa County last week. “That match is vitally important.”

Parkside Elementary School in Pittsburg, built in 1958, will be replaced with a new school to be constructed with local and state school bond funding.

Credit: Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Parkside Elementary School in Pittsburg, built in 1958, will be replaced with a new school to be constructed with local and state school bond funding.

Gov. Brown is by far the most prominent opponent of Prop. 51. Others include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, California Taxpayers Action Network and the Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties.

Brown and others against the measure say it fails to address inequities in the way school construction money is doled out, which they say favors larger, wealthier districts that have applications ready to go in the first-come, first-served process. G. Rick Marshall of the Taxpayers Action Network also alleges the measure would benefit developers by providing bond money to build new schools instead of requiring them to pay higher development fees.

“The system is inefficient,” he said. “We think if you go with local school bonds, you’re much better off.”

But Jenny Hannah, chief facilities officer for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, and chairwoman of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, said some small districts can’t raise enough money through local bond measures to completely cover the costs of new schools. A statewide bond, she said, makes California a partner in the construction costs.

A leaky roof caused water damage to ceiling tiles in an electrical closet at Parkside Elementary in Pittsburg, which is more than 50 years old. Many schools throughout the state need repairs and upgrades, according to Prop. 51 supporters.

Credit: Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

A leaky roof caused water damage to ceiling tiles in an electrical closet at Parkside Elementary in Pittsburg.

Similarly, former Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan and representatives from Alameda Unified, Oakland Unified, Pittsburg Unified and the Liberty Union school district joined Torlakson at last week’s Bay Area event supporting the measure. They said districts rely on the state’s partnership, since not all districts are in wealthy enough areas to raise all the needed funding through local measures.

Parkside Elementary, said Pittsburg school board Trustee Laura Canciamilla, was built in 1958 and is slated to be rebuilt with current district and state matching bond funding.

“Blue-collar areas like ours get less money from their communities,” she said. “That puts us at a disadvantage because buildings cost the same in Pittsburg as they do in other areas.”

Although some alternatives to the current rules for allocating construction money have been suggested, none has been successful in the state Legislature. The UC Berkeley Center for Cities + Schools suggested issuing a smaller $3 billion state bond targeted toward the neediest districts or following the state Legislative Analyst’s Office proposal to give K-12 districts annual grants per student for school facilities. Prop. 51 would lock in the current funding allocation process and could not be changed by the Legislature.

Jonathan Kaplan, an analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center, said this leaves voters facing a quandary.

“Should voters approve Prop. 51 in order to provide some bond funding for school facilities under the current system?” he wrote in a policy center blog post. “Or, would rejecting Prop. 51 push the measure’s sponsors and other interested parties to negotiate a more equitable system for funding school facilities with state leaders?”

About 30 districts that support the measure say it would cost more than $28.6 billion to meet their total facilities needs, which means Proposition 51 would not provide enough matching funding to complete all of their projects.

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