by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - September 1, 2000: Them's As Has Gets!
The old adage that "them's as has gets" could be no more true than when it comes to public school funding in California. As pointed out recently by Jim Sams in the Stockton Record, rich school districts have received far more than their fair share of the $6.7 billion in money for public school construction that was generated by the passage of Proposition 1A by the California voters in 1998.
According to Sams' article, Proposition 1A authorized the state to borrow $9.2 billion for school and college construction. The funds generated by this bond issue exceeded the total of all state borrowing for schools during the previous 12 years. The state legislature provided direction as to how the $6.7 billion would be divided among, new school construction, renovation of existing school buildings, and projects aimed at class size reduction. However, the legislature left most of the details regarding the criteria to be used to evaluate applications for this bond money to a little known board of the California Department of General Services. This stealth board - the State Allocation Board - was given broad authority in the distribution of these funds to individual school districts.
The State Allocation Board is comprised of the Director of Finance, the Director of the Department of General Services, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, two members of the State Senate and two members of the Assembly. The Board not only allocates general obligation bond funds to the school districts for new construction and for renovation of existing buildings, but also sets the criteria that individual school districts have to meet to receive these funds.
The Board decided that money would be distributed on a "first come, first served" basis to the districts that could demonstrate need, that could submit finished plans for their proposed projects, and that could come up with the required matching funds. For new construction projects the Board required a 50% match from the local school district, while for renovation projects it required a 20% match. The Board also set aside $400 million for hardship cases; i.e. for districts that could show that they would be unable to meet the matching requirements. While the funds set aside for new school construction probably will not be fully expended until 2002, money for renovation has run out, and the State Allocation Board has a backlog of approximately $1 billion in unfilled requests.
The allocation system developed by the State Allocation Board clearly favored the wealthier districts, because the richer districts had the money to hire architects and consultants who could prepare plans for new schools and school renovation projects in a timely fashion. At the same time, the poorer districts were burdened with the need to spend their funds on proportionately greater numbers of special education students and special instruction for students with limited proficiency in the English language.
The outcome was inevitable. The Beverly Hills Unified School District, one of the richest in the state, received $2,734 per student in Proposition 1A money. At the same time the nearby Compton Unified School District, one of the poorest in the state, received on $547 per student. Statewide, the 138 richest districts received on average $1,005 per student in Proposition 1A money, while the 144 poorest districts with a comparable total number of students received only $634 per student.
When the allocations for new school construction are compared, the wealthiest 27 school districts serving about 100,000 students received on average $1,930 per student, while the poorest 29 districts with a comparable number of students received $943 per student. Similarly, when allocations for renovations are compared the 25 poorest districts serving about 121,000 students received about $424 per student, while the richest 25 districts, which serve about 108,000 students received an average of $1,374 per student.
While the disparity in allocations of general obligation bond funds is on its face inequitable, the effects are even more damaging than they may appear at first glance. Even though there are pressing needs for new schools and for the renovation of dilapidated school buildings throughout the state, the poor districts have more than their share of schools in serious need of repair and modernization. At the same time these are the districts that have the least ability to come up with the needed matching funds.
In the opinion of the Irascible Professor, the time has come to focus the bright light of day on the workings of the State Allocation Board. The state legislature needs to take a close look at the policies used to allocate general obligation bond money for school construction to ensure that those districts that really need construction funds receive a fair share. In addition, the membership on the State Allocation Board should be made more representative. Otherwise, it is likely to become more difficult to convince voters in the poorer districts to support general obligation bonds for school construction and renovation.
© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.