California Faces School Renovation Needs, Budget Constraints


California’s system of school construction and maintenance is subpar and unfair, with low-income districts often under-funding construction but overspending on patching facilities that need major restorations, according to a study by Jeffrey Vincent, deputy director of the Center for Cities + Schools in the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at U.C. Berkeley.

“California must bolster – not recede from – its role in the state-local funding partnership for K-12 school facilities. Moving forward, the state should ensure that all school districts can reasonably meet both maintenance and capital investment needs” by combining local dollars with “stable and predictable state funding.”

The study was published as new data has been released showing inequality in facilities funding in the state. It is possible that school construction could be a controversial issue in the Legislature next year, writes John Fensterwald of EdSource.

The last state-funded construction bond was passed in 2006, and now the state has run out of money while there is still about $2 billion worth of district projects waiting to be funded. The Coalition for Adequate School Housing (CASH), a group comprised of school districts and building and design contractors, has collected enough signatures to put a $9 billion bond on the November 2016 ballot.

Of that amount, approximately $2 billion would be used by community colleges and the rest would be divided among K-12 districts, technical education partnerships, and charter schools. Last year in his budget message, Gov. Jerry Brown said the state should not acquire further school construction debt. He suggested that local school districts make their contributions larger.

Without the backing of Brown and the California Teachers Association, the school coalition will have a difficult time getting the $9 billion bond passed. State Department of Finance officials and school construction leaders have discussed a new funding framework. The structure could take the form of a smaller bond, based on the ability of the districts to pay.

An editorial by The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board says the study will certainly impact local decisions such as San Diego Unified’s $100 million plan to refurbish Memorial Prep, a struggling middle school in poverty-stricken Logan Heights.

The editors disagree with Vincent, saying that California should consider a revised, equity-driven path to school construction funded by the state. But this approach would come only after the adoption of reforms that mandate districts to be responsible and prevent the destructive cycle of “disrepair and replacement with their facilities.”

They add that Vincent found 62% of the state’s districts do not adequately maintain their facilities. When improperly maintained, facilities need replacement more often. The reason for this, in part, is that during the Great Recession, the Legislature suspended the state directive that required that districts spend at least 3% of their budgets on maintenance. In essence, districts gave up on maintaining their school buildings and now that there is funding, districts have not increased preservation up to previous levels.

Unless mandates on maintenance are put in place and enforced, the maintenance budget will always be at risk. But most important, say the editors, it is unfair for students of 2035 to have budget constraints because of bond debt that was used to fix broken windows and remove graffiti in 2015.

Ben Bradford of Capital Public Radio quoted Vincent:

“We did the study to look at if the state does not come up with more money to assist districts, can districts go it alone?” says Vincent. “The answer to that is easily half of them don’t appear that they can, or at least they haven’t been.”