Monday, October 27, 2008



$7-billion Measure Q would fund school construction and modernization

The largest school bond in state history is also the fifth in 11 years for L.A. Unified.

By Howard Blume From the Los Angeles Times

October 27, 2008 -- The case for $7-billion Measure Q, the largest local school bond in state history, goes something like this: Now that the school district has built dozens of new campuses, it needs and deserves more dollars to fix up the old ones.

Exhibit A for this argument is brand-new Helen Bernstein High in Hollywood, with a pool, dance studio, energy-efficient windows, the latest in computers, ceiling-mounted projectors, up-to-date science labs and a sprinkler-cooled artificial turf playing field.

In contrast, at Hollenbeck Middle School, east of downtown, students endure noisy air conditioners, an asphalt playground, an undersized gym, windows painted over to reduce glare and science labs without student work stations. Conditions are more make-do than state-of-the-art.

"We tell these kids that schooling is about their future, and then we put them in spaces that need dramatic change," said Marshall Tuck, a top education advisor for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "We need facilities that feel welcoming and are well-kept. What signal are we sending by the actual shape these buildings are in?"

Criticism of the bond focuses on the district's skyrocketing building costs, disagreements over priorities and the haste behind Measure Q itself, whose price tag more than doubled in the final days before the Board of Education placed it on the ballot July 31.

The fifth school bond in 11 years for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Measure Q will compete with other property tax increases on the November ballot.

For L.A. Unified, Measure Q represents a bid for a dependable longer-term funding stream for a $20.3-billion construction and modernization program, the nation's largest, which has so far delivered more than 75,000 classroom seats.

The stakes are clearly high.

Seven district representatives, including school board President Monica Garcia, were on hand this month for a Hollenbeck walk-through with a lone reporter. And because Hollenbeck is among 10 low-performing schools overseen by Villaraigosa, four members of his school-reform team, including Tuck, also took part.

Since 1997, when Los Angeles voters passed the first of four recent school bonds, the mission of the measures has evolved. In the first years, the money was used primarily to repair campuses that were falling apart in a school system that had last passed a bond in 1963. Then, the focus shifted mainly to constructing new schools.

By 2004, the objective became eliminating involuntary busing and year-round schedules that shorten students' academic year by 17 school days.

Although it also would establish funds for new buildings, Measure Q returns to the 1997 goal: fixing things up and ensuring the new stuff doesn't break down.

To be sure, conditions have improved, even at the district's older schools.

In the last decade, Hollenbeck has received $7.3 million in upgrades and repairs, covering painting, plumbing, lighting, fencing, flooring and more. Projects totaling an additional $4.2 million are in progress, including fire alarms, air conditioning and food-service upgrades. And even without a new bond, $370,000 in other work is scheduled.

But Tuck espouses an atmospheric upgrade -- from a school environment that, he said, appears to tolerate less than the best to one that inspires excellence. Hollenbeck's , he suggested, are partly a reflection of the school environment. Elevating the setting is especially vital to student success in gang-plagued and economically depressed areas, he said.

To provide individual attention, hundreds of millions of dollars would be used to convert existing campuses into clusters of small schools. Officials also designated $250 million to update cafeterias. The bond also includes $500 million for green technology such as renewable energy systems, $450 million for charter schools and about $2 billion for still-unspecified needs.

The bond's total doubled at the 11th hour as part of a Villaraigosa-backed compromise that provided more dollars to charter schools in exchange for charter leaders' agreement not to oppose the measure.

Critics, including longtime education activist Gene Krischer, said the bond's doubling epitomizes a program that has been too free-wheeling with other people's money.

"The kids are getting something, but I don't think they and the taxpayer are getting their money's worth," said Krischer, who tracks bond-oversight meetings on behalf of a Sierra Club chapter. "The district could be building at a more reasonable cost."

For some, one such manifestation is the landmark arts high school under construction downtown, which so far is costing about $1,000 per square foot. That doesn't include about $190 million spent to move the school district's headquarters, which once occupied that site.

In general, the bond program's costs also are driven up by such factors as the district's insistence on paying union wages, its local contractor training program, its community outreach effort for selecting school sites and its aim to build schools that also can be used as community recreation centers.

One widely used measure of construction efficiency is the number of change orders, which are costs that result from alterations or unforeseen conditions. The district's first set of 146 projects in the current new schools program had a change-order rate of 11.3%, higher than the industry average. Finishing Bernstein High required $14.5 million in change orders that added 22.6% to the original price tag.

But the school, which opened this fall, has other issues too. It all but overlooks the 101 Freeway on land acquired before district safety experts decided that particulates from freeways represented too great a hazard. And the design of the cafeteria is outdated.

During a recent press tour, L.A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer had trouble getting past that cafeteria.

"Where's the heat?" he said, referring to the lack of equipment for keeping hot food hot. "Where the flow?" he added, noting that the layout might leave students at the back of the line with too little time to eat.

Measure Q could address those deficiencies for about $200,000, and it could help pay for air filters to screen out particulates.

Both issues are lessons learned, which are being applied elsewhere, said Guy Mehula, the head of facilities. And the percentage of change orders is declining.

Back at Hollenbeck, Tuck gestured toward the sea of blacktop that passes for the school's playground. He said he envisions grass and trees in its place. Three years ago, the district spent $519,000 to add another layer of paving.

Lukewarm support and less for L.A. Unified bond

by Howard Blume in the LA Times Homeroom Blog


Photo credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

27 October -- As reported in today’s L.A. Times, the $7-billion Measure Q seeks, in large measure, to make older schools comparable to new ones. And the vast majority of students in L.A. Unified attend older schools. (Above, Steven Naranjo, left, sits in his seventh-grade class at Hollenbeck Middle School, which could see improvements if Measure Q passes.)

But despite support from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the largest local school bond in state history has generated less enthusiasm among some powerful interest groups and civic leaders than past bonds. Most acknowledge that schools in the district need additional funding, but, beyond that, they have their issues.

From L.A. Unified's viewpoint, here is what the building program has accomplished.

Read on for a sampling of other perspectives from major unions, the Chamber of Commerce, charter schools, Connie Rice and Eli Broad, and a Westside parent:

Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
Position on Measure Q: Support

Unlike many business associations elsewhere, the chamber is not automatically against nearly every tax as antithetical to business. Chamber leaders also assert that educating the future workforce is vital. And the bond funds pump dollars -- albeit from taxes -- into the local economy. The chamber endorsement flier states, "This bond will pay for long-overdue deferred maintenance of existing LAUSD schools averaging 61 years of age."

United Teachers Los Angeles
Position on Measure Q: Declined to take position

The politically potent teachers union has endorsed past bond measures but took no stand on this one, even though improved schools would offer better working conditions for teachers.

“We feel like, in these economic times, this is not the time,” said UTLA President A.J. Duffy, offering an explanation that veered close to sounding like a “no” vote. “Public education is going to fall apart in the next two or three or four years if somebody doesn’t change things materially. But you’re not going to save it by extending the [property tax] payments homeowners make, particularly when people are losing their homes.

“And there is $450 million in the bond for charter schools. That is problematic for us. And third, there is something like $2 billion in the bond that doesn’t have a clear-cut earmark. It’s not clear what that money is going to be used for.”

Associated Administrators of Los Angeles
Measure Q: No official position but supportive

The organization that represents principals and other administrators took no official position, but President Michael O’Sullivan said he wants the bond measure to pass.

“We are very close to completing the task that [former L.A. Schools Supt.] Roy Romer began many years ago in terms of building new schools, but we have to refocus attention on the vast majority of our schools that are old and in need of repair. This bond begins to make a solid dent in deferred maintenance and upkeep. This is considered to be an election where public-education-friendly voters are likely to vote in large numbers, and I support the school district’s effort to keep the schools up to date however they can do it.”

California Charter Schools Assn.
Measure Q: Declined to take position

School district officials were concerned that the charter-school community would mount an effective anti-bond campaign. This perceived clout won charters a $450-million share of the bond and a shot at other portions of the $7-billion measure.

But charter advocates aren’t celebrating. That’s because the terms of the bond won’t give charter operators the right to own sites that public funds help to build. As a result, certain financing options, which would allow them to leverage more money for construction, would be harder to obtain.

Charter leaders also are unhappy about the increased costs that would result from two other provisions. First, the bond rules won’t permit them to use less expensive, non-union contractors. Second, the district is requiring compliance with the Field Act, which is designed to make school buildings safer than other structures in earthquakes. But it also adds to construction costs.

Beyond that, charter-school leaders fault L.A. Unified’s overall efforts to provide charter schools with classroom space.

California School Employees Assn.
Measure Q: Declined to take position

This union represents about 6,800 fiscal, clerical and technical workers in L.A. Unified. It, too, has supported past bonds, but the organization accuses the district of improperly hiring consultants and independent contractors instead of qualified union members. District officials have denied these allegations.

“On a personal level,” wrote labor relations representative Connie Moreno in an e-mail, “I’m really conflicted. My own daughter went to inner-city schools in LAUSD. I’ve represented classified staff in the inner-city L.A. schools for 21 years. I know how badly repairs are needed in most of those schools –- especially the year-round, or formerly year-round, schools. (For years they had students, both adult and children, going to classes in those schools from 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night. Schools wear out.)
“But I’m also really angry about the waste of taxpayer money from the previous bonds. There is absolutely no reason to pay outrageous amounts of money for many of the contract support positions. It reflects badly on facilities management -– folks who were either too stubborn or too lazy to hire workers legitimately.”

Local publisher David Abel added to the lukewarm chorus by posting an online installment of the Planning Report, which he titled, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” referring to issues and measures on the ballot. “The Bad,” in that nomenclature, is the L.A. Unified bond measure.

Abel’s piece includes a transcription of a broadcast interview with civil-rights attorney Connie Rice, who chairs a committee appointed to oversee school-bond spending. Rice accepts that the money is needed but objected to the haste and last-minute changes in the bond measure, for which she held L.A. Unified Supt. David L. Brewer ultimately responsible.

(Abel, who formerly served on the appointed committee that oversees school-bond spending, said he cannot support Measure Q because of the issues enumerated by Rice.)

Two other major civic players, who are deeply involved in local education wars, were difficult to pin down last week regarding Measure Q. Former Mayor Richard Riordan declined an opportunity to weigh in. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad was out of the country and did not leave behind with his staff an unequivocal position. But a spokeswoman made it clear that Broad was extremely “disappointed” with the bond.

Westside parent John Ayers is unhappy about all the money spent for new schools in other parts of town, while he and his Westside neighbors resort to constant fundraising and other volunteer efforts to enhance their local school, Beethoven Elementary.

"I have been fighting for over three years to get some grass planted on our campus, which is currently a tarmac full of desolate, hot, black asphalt," Ayers wrote in an e-mail explaining why he is against this bond. "Bond money expenditures remind me of the government spending $3,000 on a toilet. Or $600 on a wrench! Convince me that this bond will be handled differently, and I will be the first one in line to vote YES."

District officials have long acknowledged that some schools and some areas have benefited substantially more than others. Rather than divide the money evenly by geographic region, L.A. Unified has opted to spend money where officials have decided it's needed most. And that has resulted in the bulk of bond funds going to central and South Los Angeles, the Eastside, portions of southeast L.A. County and lower income areas in the San Fernando Valley.

One side effect of this policy is that high-propensity middle- and upper-middle-class voters are, in essence, frequently paying for school improvements in other parts of town. Parents such as Ayers argue that their schools deserve more than they are getting.

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