At Wednesday’s Joint Oversight Hearing on Financing Options for School Facilities – chaired by Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) – legislators were told California will run out of funding for new construction of the state’s K-12 facilities by April, and modernization of its decaying or seismically deficient infrastructure by August of 2012.
Brownley, who has been a strong advocate for education in California, is proud of the joint effort by the state and local school districts to improve California’s K-12 school facilities over the last decade.
“We’ve made some real progress in either building new schools or in modernizing existing facilities,” Brownley told California Progress Report. “Many districts have passed their local bonds and together we are trying to build school houses that are sustainable and green in nature, which in the long run will reduce our costs around maintenance of school facilities. But there is a real need for facilities in K through 12 and I think if we continue to disinvest we will destroy our investments in education.”
Californians have historically supported the public school systems. As a state, “we’ve spent $35 billion investing in school construction over the last decade,” said Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan during the hearing. “But we’re not likely to see that happen again.”
“We have no money now and we need to know the average age of our schools in California,” Lowenthal told Chip Smith, who was testifying on behalf of the State Architect’s office. “This is a pretty bleak picture.”
Currently there’s no statewide assessment of the condition of K-12 school facilities, leaving legislators in the dark about the remaining needs. Legislators have received estimates to the tune of nearly $1 million to do a statewide assessment. With the state now struggling to close budget gaps to keep school doors open, appropriating money for the assessment is not likely.
The last bond approved by voters was Proposition 1D in 2006. Approximately $1.5 billion dollars remains of that bond authority. The requests for state funding have slowed, however, as school districts are reluctant to ask voters to approve new bonds during these difficult economic times.
Not all California communities are struggling.
San Francisco has a “robust” tax base, according to Bill Savage, representing the State Allocation Board. San Franciscans recently passed a $531 million dollar school construction bond in order to capture some of the remaining state funding. San Francisco’s strong tax base is due to the fact San Francisco homes have not depreciated in value as homes in other areas of the state have.
Depreciation in home values has caused a significant drop in tax revenue at both the state and local levels.
Additionally, only 12.5% of San Francisco’s residents have children, as opposed to a state average between 30 and 35%.
Mark Hovatter, director of bond planning for the Los Angeles Unified School District, described how the improvements to LA’s schools have benefited the surrounding communities. “The ability of schools to transform communities is amazing. One third of all classrooms in Los Angeles were in portable classrooms. We have reclaimed the greenspace on campuses,” making former award-winning schools beautiful places to learn, he said.
LAUSD has approximately 680,000 students. Its infrastructure capacity “was intended for 450,000,” claimed Lowenthal. Recently the school district has seen a decline of nearly 10%, however, due in part to the unemployed leaving California to find jobs in other states.
“An educated state really does create wealth for California,” Brownley told CPR. “I think there are the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of California’s education system because California invested in the education of their children. I think it’s an important nexus between an educated workforce and a robust economy. An educated state really does create wealth for California. As we continue to disinvest in education we’re crumbling the backbone of California’s wealth.”
“I would always agree that we have a moral obligation [to provide Californians with a quality education], but we also have an economic obligation,” said Brownley. Of California’s ability to compete globally, especially with China, Brownley said, “Make no mistake that as they invest in a high quality education system they will develop their own innovators.” Brownley believes we must continue to invest in education if California is to compete globally in the future.
(This article first appeared at California Progress Report.)