Thursday, August 26, 1999
It''s a sad state of affairs when it''s easier to raise the money to build a prison than it is to build a new school.
So say school officials who for years have cried "foul" at what they see as the nearly insurmountable task of having to garner approval from two-thirds of the voters in order to pass a general obligation school bond.
But an initiative quietly making its way toward the March 2000 ballot could change all that, and local school officials are throwing their weight behind supporting it.
One million signatures have been gathered on petitions to place the "Let''s Fix Our Schools" initiative on the March ballot. Supporters are confident they''ll qualify for the ballot, since they gathered far more than the 670,000 signatures they needed. The initiative, chaired by state Sen. Jack O''Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, would reduce the threshold needed for school bond passage to a simple majority vote.
"We have a very distinguished but older, aging set of schools throughout Monterey County," says county Superintendent of Schools Bill Barr. "With our continually growing student population, it presents to our schools a facilities squeeze. We find ourselves with very overcrowded schools without the direct ability to construct new schools without going to the voters to request a local school bond. And local school bond initiatives have one of the few remaining super-majority requirements in all of government."
California is one of only seven states that require local construction bonds--long considered the best way to raise money for school improvements--to be approved by a super-majority. Statewide bonds, such as those for prison construction, need a simple majority to pass.
"This is undemocratic," O''Connell says of the super-majority requirement. "It should not take two ''yes'' votes to offset one ''no'' vote."
Local school officials are quick to point out the difficulties inherent in the two-thirds requirement.
In the past four years, five school bond measures in Monterey County have captured the majority vote, but have failed to reach the magic 66.7 percentile. The sorriest of those cases is the Salinas Union High School District, which has seen three school bonds fail since 1995. Its most recent shot--two bond measures in 1998 that, combined, would have raised $50 million--both garnered more than 61 percent of the vote.
"We would have had two schools on-line right now if we would have had (the simple majority) back then," says high school district Superintendent Fernando Elizondo.
Two local districts--Pacific Grove and Alisal Union in East Salinas--are asking voters to approve bonds on Nov. 2. In P.G., a $12 million bond would go toward modernizing and fixing the district''s aging schools. In Alisal, a $25 million bond would help build three new schools and modernize existing buildings. The Alisal district built three new schools with a $15 million bond voters approved in 1990.
"With all the growth in the area, we have to build new schools," says Alisal district Superintendent Alfonso Anaya. "I feel confident we''ll pass the bond (with the super-majority), but when we have to have two ''yes'' votes for every ''no'' vote, it makes it that much more difficult."
The crusade to lower the two-thirds threshold has been taken up several times in the past several years, both by the state Legislature and the voters. O''Connell, a former school teacher, has been behind several such moves, including a voter initiative similar to "Let''s Fix Our Schools" that failed miserably in 1993, when only 31 percent of the voters said yes to it.
This time, however, O''Connell says things are different. "Let''s Fix Our Schools" has what supporters call a "broad base of support" from such groups as the California Business Alliance, the California Teachers Association, the Congress of California Seniors, the League of Women Voters and others. The initiative contains strict provisions that would require districts to list the specific projects that would be funded by the money, as well as require an annual audit of the bond proceeds.
Some of the groups who have signed onto the latest push were opposed to it in 1993, O''Connell says.
"There has been an educational renaissance in the last several years," he says, "People want to support and invest in public education."
The initiative will have its detractors, however. Local bond measures are repaid by additional property taxes. Historically, the bulk of the opposition to bonds has come from taxpayer groups.
The Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association was one of the groups opposed to the 1993 initiative, says association President Ron Pasquinelli.
While the group hasn''t yet taken a stance on the latest effort, Pasquinelli says the super-majority requirement ensures that only bonds that are absolutely necessary will pass.
"Our basic opinion has always been that bonds that are needed will gather the two-thirds majority," he says. "Everybody says it''s too hard, but bonds have been passed by school districts, by people who get together and decide what''s needed. If you can''t convince two-thirds that (a bond) is needed, then it''s not needed."
O''Connell says he''s "fairly confident" the initiative will earn a space on the March ballot. Proponents have until Aug. 30 to gather petitions, which are then forwarded to the Secretary of State''s office for verification. The verification process is expected to take about a month.
Still, O''Connell says "it''s going to be a battle" to pass the initiative.
It''s a battle Barr hopes the schools win. "We all need to share a responsibility in creating new schools," he says.