Ryan McDonald

State bond measure splits South Bay school districts

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by Ryan McDonald

When they cast their votes in the March 3 primary election, South Bay residents could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into a time machine. There’s a divisive measure on the ballot with the potential to greatly change financing for local school districts, and it goes by Proposition 13.

The current Prop. 13 is not related to the notorious 1978 ballot measure that crimped the state’s property tax assessments, nor the planned “split roll” amendment to the state Constitution that may greet voters in November. The Prop. 13 now up for consideration is a school facilities bond for primary and higher education, and it is dividing education leaders in the South Bay.

Prop. 13 contains $9 billion for construction and modernization projects at K-12 schools, as well as $6 billion for higher education. Districts in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, both of which recently passed school bonds and have construction projects underway, have indicated plans to apply for these funds, and board members there have expressed support for Prop. 13. But while money for school facilities can be hard to turn down, Prop. 13 also changes how the state’s money is distributed. Some officials are worried that districts in wealthy areas like the South Bay may find it harder to obtain if the measure passes.

In a discussion, earlier this month, every member of the Redondo Beach Unified School District Board of Education expressed opposition to Prop. 13. RBUSD Board Member Brad Waller, who has written a pair of detailed posts on his personal blog in opposition, has become particularly invested. He chuckles at the fact that the current measure shares a name with the one that embodied the “taxpayers revolt” of the late ‘70s, and said he is keenly aware that school districts have long had to struggle for funds because of it. It would be hard to mistake him for Howard Jarvis, the activist who led the campaign for the original Prop. 13.  

“This is the first time I have ever personally opposed a school bond,” Waller said in an interview.

Prop. 13 was inspired by a growing consensus that the current system of funding school facilities is regressive, a criticism aired by both former Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov. Gavin Newsom. A November 2015 study from the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley found that districts in poorer areas more frequently had to dip into funds meant for programming to maintain buildings, and urged sweeping changes to the facilities financing system.

“To promote adequacy and equity in spending on K-12 school facilities, the state’s role, at minimum, should be to equalize the ability of all local districts to raise adequate capital dollars for their school facilities,” the study found.

Since 2000, California’s School Facilities Program has been the system by which the state helps local school districts finance facilities projects. Because funding based on student attendance is almost entirely consumed by salaries for teachers and administrators, money for facilities tends to be raised through local school bonds and, to a lesser extent, parcel taxes and developer fees. School districts can apply for matchings funds generated by the proceeds from the state’s sale of bonds.

But the facilities needs of California public schools tend to outstrip even the considerable amount of money the state makes available. Between 2002 and 2016, California voters approved $45 billion in school facilities bond measures. (Some of that money was for the community college, California State University, and University of California systems.) According to the State Allocation Board, almost all of it is now spoken for.

The state’s method for dealing with the scarcity is, essentially, first come, first served, which makes for a post-election scramble. In November 2016, California voters approved Proposition 51, which provided $7 billion for construction at K-12 campuses and community colleges. It was the first statewide bond passed in a decade, and districts were eager to tap the funds. MBUSD officials said in January that two projects that were touted in local school bonds approved in November 2016 were the last two in the state to be guaranteed funding. Indeed, Prop. 13 sets aside some matching funds for local bonds that were passed before November 2018 but failed to get in line fast enough. 

If Prop. 13 passes, speed would no longer be the top consideration. Under Assembly Bill 48, the law signed by Newsom last fall that put Prop. 13 on the ballot, the state would give first priority to projects addressing a “health or life safety” hazard. Second would be for projects from school districts with a “financial hardship,” which under the law means districts with lower property values and less bonding capacity. Farther down the priority ladder, the new law would set up a point system in which districts with larger enrollments of English learners, foster youth and socio-economically disadvantaged students would have an advantage over districts with lower numbers in those categories. Projects in districts with higher numbers of these students would also be eligible to have a higher percentage of the cost of their projects covered.

Waller said that he understands the impulse to help districts in low-income areas. But he feels that the latest measure embodies a trend in state education policy that has compounded funding challenges for districts in wealthy areas.

“The reaction from Sacramento if you talk to them about these issues is, ‘Pass a parcel tax, pass a school bond: Your residents can afford it,’” Waller said.

Waller notes that the point system the law establishes closely resembles the structure for distributing school operational funding established under the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF. Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, LCFF overhauled the state’s education budgeting process by linking a district’s level of per-pupil funding to the percentage of its students that are classified as “unduplicated”: English learners, foster youth, or socio-economically disadvantaged. Although state-dispersed funding was leveled out among districts after a 1971 state Supreme Court decision, because it is generally more expensive to educate “unduplicated” students, districts with high shares of these students still found themselves at a disadvantage.

While LCFF has likely helped students in poorer areas, it has also made districts like those in the South Bay, which have very low numbers of unduplicated students, some of the lowest-funded in the state. On a per-pupil basis, the Hermosa Beach City School District is the lowest-funded district in Los Angeles County; the Manhattan Beach Unified School District and RBUSD are not far behind.

The concerns of the Redondo board have apparently not influenced thinking in Manhattan Beach. At their Jan. 22 meeting, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District board unanimously passed a resolution in support of Prop. 13. The brief discussion before the vote did not address changes to priority system, and board members seemed most concerned with getting the word out to residents.

“Especially because it’s called Prop. 13,” joked MBUSD board member Bill Fournell. 

In an email, MBUSD Board President Jennifer Cochran said that Prop. 13 would help, not harm, local schools.

“If state measure 13 passes, Manhattan Beach will have shovel-ready projects funded by local bonds that will be eligible for state bond funds,” she wrote. Cochran and other board members did not respond to questions about the law’s changes to funding priorities.

Hermosa’s school board did not take a position on the bond measure. But board members offered their personal support despite the changes to funding priorities. HBCSD Board Member Maggie Bove-Lamonica said she had spoken with former board members in Redondo, and that while she understands their position, the measure makes sense overall.

“I never thought first-in-line was a fair way to do it,” she said.

Hermosa, which is facing litigation over Measure S, the school facilities bond its voters passed in June 2016, was delayed in submitting its application for state bond funds. But Hermosa, Bove-LaMonica said, is “a really well-organized district,” that is at least capable of quickly getting together applications if needed. Others may not be so fortunate.

The process for securing state bond funds is byzantine, and involves multiple approvals from at least five different state agencies. Districts must also submit extensive supporting documentation, all of which must be certified by other state agencies before the application for bond funds is considered. The need to speedily process these applications tends to privilege wealthier districts that have the administrative personnel to handle them.

In line with Sacramento’s attempts to solve California’s housing crisis, Prop. 13 would also limit how districts may assess developer fees on multi-family housing projects. It would prohibit such fees entirely when those projects are located near major transit stops. This would likely prevent Redondo’s district from imposing fees on the coming Galleria development, which will include 300 new units, is served by multiple bus lines, and will be the site of a future light-rail station.

“It’s going to put this district in a very precarious situation, because it’ll be taking away money, and not allowing us to apply for money,” Redondo board member Raymur Flinn said of Prop. 13.

HBCSD board president Jen Cole acknowledged that Hermosa was differently situated, with no pending projects that would be covered by the developer fee provision. But she said she was personally supporting the measure because it is “the right thing to do.”

“We have to look out for all children. And what’s best for kids is to have safe, great schools to be in,” Cole said.

The state has a long way to go before it gets there. According to a September 2018 study from Getting Down to Facts, a project of Stanford University, the combined tab for modernization and new construction projects at the state’s schools over the coming decade is expected to be $117 billion. For Bove-LaMonica, that makes the question less one of rich areas pitted against poor ones than of rethinking how the state values its students.

“My baseline is, we just don’t fund education enough in California. The original Prop. 13 might keep homeowners in their houses, but it also devastated how we fund schools,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Hermosa’s Parent-Teacher Organization supported Prop. 13. In fact, the organization did not take a position on the measure. The Easy Reader regrets the error.

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