By Connie Llanos Staff Writer | LA Daily News
04/19/2010 - Los Angeles Unified school board members will spend $200 million in reserves from the district's $20 billion construction bond program to pay for pet projects in each of their districts.
The allocation comes as the district borrows money to complete its construction projects and as other voter-approved building plans have been put on hold for lack of funding.
District officials said the plan - approved on a 6-0 vote April 13 with board member Yolie Flores abstaining - secures funding for "critical" projects in every local district.
Still, most of these projects were never listed as priorities by the LAUSD's facilities department when the construction schedule was set. And dozens of other projects that were identified as "critical" have been shelved due to a lack of money.
Just last week, board members also approved borrowing up to $360 million for several projects, including at least two totaling some $165 million that could have been funded with revenue from the voter-approved bonds.
The allocation drew the ire of taxpayer advocates.
"This is not a time for special projects. It is time to get the work done that the district promised voters when they put these five bond measures on the ballot over the last 13 years," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
Flores said she abstained from voting because she felt she had too many unanswered questions about the projects.
"I don't think we should be approving pet projects in this district ... that's not the way I want to do business," said Flores, who represents East Los Angeles.
Specifically, Flores said she wanted to delay a vote pending the release of an independent audit showing how much remains of the $20 billion revenue from voter-approved Measures BB, K, R and Y.
"The issue and frustration for me is that we made decisions on a number of projects that for some reason took priority and precedence over others that were put on hold and already deemed critical," Flores said.
Five of the projects in five board districts total $140 million. The plan also includes $50 million for two "undefined" projects - one for each of the two board districts that did not receive a specific project.
Meanwhile, 18 previously approved construction projects have been placed on the unfunded list and a number of modernization projects have been shelved.
"I find this to be a little bizarre and inconsistent with the process we've developed to stay true to the promises made to voters," Flores added.
The recently approved plan includes projects that qualify for funding under Measure Q, the district's $7 billion bond approved in 2008 for modernizing existing campuses.
Due to declining home values, the assessed valuation of property in LAUSD has dropped to the point that the district cannot meet the state requirements for the sale of additional bonds needed to fund its building program.
Officials said they don't expect that to change until 2016 at the earliest - and that waiting six years for some of these projects is simply not an option.
"These projects are critical and most of them have been priorities for community members for a very long time," Superintendent Ramon Cortines said.
James Sohn, the district's interim facilities chief, said the sour economy has cut construction costs dramatically, so now is the time to build.
However, some community members questioned the need for some of these projects, including $54 million for a state-of-the-art elementary and middle school serving Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
Alice Callaghan, a former Catholic nun who is now an ordained Episcopalian priest working on Skid Row, said demographic shifts have eliminated the need for a new school in the impoverished neighborhood.
"I understand that the district got this money to build schools and it has to spend its bond money on building," Callaghan said. "But in this case, it's just not needed."