Showdown Looms Over California's School Construction Needs

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School advocates say California is long overdue for billions of dollars to build and modernize classrooms. (Getty Images)

Big fights in state political and policy circles are usually about what either someone wants to do ... or what they don't want to do. Count in that second category the 2015 fight that looms over the future of financing California's school construction and modernization needs.

The key question is this: Is it time to rethink the existing system where state and local officials share responsibility for building and improving schools, financed in large part by the state government selling multibillion-dollar general obligation bonds?

Yes, says Gov. Jerry Brown; no, says a group of legislators and school district officials.

"The governor, by his budget presentation, is against it," said Joe Dixon, assistant superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Dixon is also chairman of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a group formed to help alleviate the delay in funding billions of dollars of waiting school construction projects across California.

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Since 1982, school bond measures on statewide ballots have been both frequent and almost always successful. A total of $52.68 billion for school construction needs was approved by voters over a quarter-century, the most recent bond being approved in 2006.

But that was it, and the well is now dry.

"There is currently no bond authority remaining in the state's core school facilities new construction and modernization programs," says the January state budget proposal by Brown.

Brown, though, is opposed to simply going back to the ballot. In late 2014, as legislators were crafting a new $9 billion school bond for the fall ballot, the governor quietly squashed the plan before it ever reached a final vote in the Legislature.

Observers wondered whether Brown, who had already agreed to a $7.5 billion water bond on the November ballot, simply didn't want any more borrowing proposals at the same time he was reminding voters of how he was leading state government into a more frugal future.

Now the governor's budget proposes a lengthy "dialogue on the future of school facilities funding," and one thing is clear: He no longer wants to borrow money on the state's credit card for construction and modernization needs at all California schools.

Brown's budget director, Michael Cohen, said earlier this month that the governor wants to limit state school bonds to only a portion of schools.

"Leaving the state role at assisting those [school districts] who don't have the financial wherewithal to build the schools they need," said Cohen.

The governor's goals, only broadly outlined in the budget he unveiled on Jan. 9, include some kind of "means test" that would push more responsibility to the local level -- including school bonds approved by local voters, which require a 55 percent vote to pass.

"I don't know how he thinks that's going to make things better," responded Santa Ana USD's Dixon. While historical data show about 80 percent of local school bonds pass, Dixon said those local ballot measures aren't spread out among the schools with the most need for building and improving their facilities.

"It's uneven," said Dixon. "There are 1,000 school districts. There's a state role and a partnership to make sure that all kids in California have good school facilities."

And that's why the coalition that Dixon and others -- school officials and members of the state's building industry -- have formed is ready to bypass the state Capitol in 2016.

Three days after Brown unveiled his budget with its call to rethink statewide school bonds, the Coalition for Adequate School Housing submitted a statewide ballot initiative for a $9 billion school bond in November 2016.

Once cleared for signature-gathering, the group intends to move forward on its own -- a rare rejection of the normal process where legislators put bond measures on the ballot, and a move that could force Brown into the uncomfortable position of accepting something he doesn't want ... or provoking a fight with school officials and others who have often supported his policies.

"We're not letting off," said Dixon. "We feel we have to go full speed ahead."