Thursday, November 06, 2008

Q, RATED: Why the LAUSD bond passed, and big

Measure Q is 70 pages in length and the detail on proposed spending seems infinite. But there are also long passages where it gets vague and speculative.

Less like a hard business plan, you might say, and more like a prophecy of Nostradamus.





 Central High School #9: The High School for the Fine and Performing Arts.

By Marc B. Haefele | LA CityBeat

November 6, 2008 -- In the end, it was more about school bucks than school books.

The folks who most actively backed Prop. Q – the $7 billion educational bond measure that passed Tuesday with almost 70 percent – were not the 45,000 teachers and the 700,000 pupils in the LAUSD. Sure, the district itself dropped 20 grand on Prop. Q “informational” materials. This was reported by the Times as undue influence, but didn’t matter a bit in the end.

What was really at issue was voter confidence in the LAUSD itself. The passage means it’s somehow still there.

The truly big spenders behind the proposition were actually the region’s biggest contractors and building-trade unions: They collectively socked in most of the $700,000 funding for Yes on Q, which was on your ballot if you lived in the 710-square-mile school district that includes Los Angeles, unincorporated East L.A., and eight entire L.A. County cities. There was a terrific reason for this support in the form of thousands of potential new construction jobs in a time and place where such jobs are getting scarce.

The $7 billion will build, complete, or renovate hundreds of elementary, middle, and high schools in the 878-school LAUSD. If the idea sounds overfamiliar, that’s because this was the fifth multi-billion-dollar LAUSD bond measure proposed since 1997. Q’s better-publicized predecessors were BB, K, R, and Y. Their passage provided $19 billion in school construction funds. The results were a rare and widely proclaimed LAUSD success story. In the late ’90s, the much-maligned LAUSD was running year-round multi-tracked class schedules in 227 schools, seriously blunting teaching quality, such as it then was. Now the facilities, at least, are a lot better. All that handsome new school construction you see all over town has made the big difference, with lots of shiny new classrooms and about half as many year-round multi-track schools.

As the LAUSD tells it:

“Since 2002, the District has completed 72 new K-12 schools and 30 early education centers and expansions, built 59 additions to existing schools, and added approximately 75,000 new K-12 classroom seats. There is progress being made at older schools too. More than 17,110 repair and upgrade projects and approximately 1,200 technology projects have been completed at schools throughout the District.”

Not bad for starters. But there’re still 200,000 kids in temp classrooms, the average school is 45 years old, and the average class is still supersized. Also, those prior spending measures did nothing for the aspiring, burgeoning charter schools outside the LAUSD’s official Big Top, and they want help too.

Enter Q. It is 70 pages in length and the detail on proposed spending seems infinite. But there are also long passages where it gets vague and speculative. Less like a hard business plan, you might say, and more like a prophecy of Nostradamus. These waffley fringes occasioned the Times’s and the Daily News’s editorial opposition. On the other hand, while there was a well-bankrolled “Yes on Q” organization, there was no corresponding “no” group. LAUSD’s long-serving hordes of angry critics seemed to be sitting this one out.

Not all critics did. Now is a good time, if you are in the pundit biz, to talk tough about slashing public spending, particularly if you subscribe to the century-old economics dicta recently embraced so passionately by Sen. John McCain. Otherwise you might, like the contractors and building trades unions, support the idea of $7 billion creating new jobs and thus trickling back into the increasingly parched local economy. On the other hand, servicing the bonded debt is to cost district homeowners an additional $60 per $100k in assessed valuations – something like an average extra $250 a year (in addition to the $123 per $100k already being assessed). That’s the kind of wealth redistribution many recessioning property owners might not be expected to embrace.

Another possible negative was the fact that the LAUSD (which has had nearly $5 billion in assistance from the state in recent years) was taking a likely $440 million lop in anticipated state operating funding this year and might best concentrate on dealing with that rather than building more schools. Nor has Superintendent David Brewer III earned the public confidence inspired by his dynamic predecessor, Roy Romer. There’s less accountability, as the Monday Times story about former Assistant Principal Steve Thomas Rooney suggests. After this alleged pistol-wielding child molester was transferred around the system instead of being fired, the only disclosed result was an orgy of fingerpointing. This is irresponsibility of the kind one associates with the LAUSD of the ’90s. To an uncertain extent, the voter approval of Q suggests that despite increasing problems, the recent eight-year era of voter confidence in the district’s self improvement may not yet have ebbed.

What of the long fruitless war between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the LAUSD? As we all know, despite certain campaign promises, the mayor still isn’t running the L.A. schools the way mayors do in Chicago and Washington DC. But he’s taken charge of a handful of bad schools and embedded his capable education sidekick, Ramon Cortines, as Brewer’s deputy. Now peace reigns between City Hall and the district, relatively speaking – yet even this comity somehow affected Q. The story goes that the district originally wanted just $4 billion in new bonds. The mayor’s polling found public support for $7 billion. Was this “what the public will bear” approach the right way to assess the actual need, in tough times, for a school spending package equaling roughly half the LAUSD’s entire $14 billion annual budget?

Apparently it was.

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