Legislation to put a $13 billion school construction bond on the state ballot next year and a second bond in 2022 moved forward last week with strong support overall from the education community — and a vague promise by the bill’s author to address concerns that state building aid to school districts isn’t equitably distributed.
With $9 billion in state funding from the last state bond, in 2016, either spent or committed, Assembly Bill 48 received unanimous approval of the Senate Education Committee after a short hearing on June 19. But important details remain to be fleshed out before the full Senate votes later this summer and Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to give his opinion of the proposed amount and other aspects of the bill. The size of the second bond also hasn’t been determined. School construction bonds that voters passed in 2002, 2004 and 2006 ranged from $10.4 billion to $13.1 billion.
Under the state school construction program, the state supplements the cost of construction projects that school districts and community colleges fund with bonds raised through local property taxes. The state pays half of the cost of a new school and pays for 60 percent of the cost of renovating a school or college campus.
AB 48 would include preschool facilities in next year’s next bond, and the bill’s author, Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, confirmed last week that $500 million would be set aside for charter school construction — the same as in the 2016 bond, Proposition 51. There also would be money to fix water systems contaminated by levels of lead violating federal standards. But where the rest of the money would go hasn’t been set. If Prop. 51 is a guide, however, $10 billion would likely go to K-12 districts and $3 billion to community colleges.
During an EdSource webinar about the state building program on June 18, panelist Eric Bakke, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, a co-sponsor of AB 48, said he’d favor more money for modernization than for new construction — reflecting the need to repair aging buildings statewide and, in many districts, declining or stagnant student enrollment.
A study last year for the Getting Down to Facts research project, organized by the research nonprofit PACE and Stanford University, found that the current state formula favors school districts with larger tax bases, particularly for renovating schools. Higher property values enable them to issue school bonds qualifying for large state matching grants. Those districts also tend to have families with higher than average incomes and fewer low-income students.
While property values have significantly risen, especially in the Bay Area and the coast, they’ve have been slow to rebound from the recession a decade ago in the Central Valley and inland regions, limiting the ability of districts in those regions to issue bonds to cover their needs.
In “Financing School Facilities in California: A Ten-Year Perspective,” co-author Jeff Vincent, who co-directs the Center for Cities + Schools at UC Berkeley, provided extensive data about how the state allocates money for construction projects under its School Facilities Program.
He found that the bottom fifth of districts, averaging $900,000 in taxable property per student, received an average of $661 per student in modernization aid from 1998-2017. The top fifth of districts, with an average of $2.4 million in taxable property per student, averaged eight times that much — $5,361 per student.
“If the Legislature moves forward without fixing inequities in funding, it will be doing a huge disservice to school districts and children in low-wealth communities,” Vincent told EdSource.
Another challenge is the application process for state grants. Once the state qualifies districts, matching grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, which can disadvantage small districts without full-time staff to determine building needs and write proposals.
O’Donnell said in testimony that his bill addresses some of the issues raised. Small districts would receive technical help and project management to navigate the application process. Requirements for the “hardship” program, providing construction aid of up to 100 percent for districts with very low property values, would be changed to potentially qualify more additional small districts.
“It’s encouraging to see some provisions in the bill that look to be equity-promoting although it’s unclear the extent to which they would make an impact,” Vincent said.
Vincent, Bakke and representatives from school districts, teachers union and organizations representing the building trades who testified June 19, all agreed that state aid is needed now and want to see a state bond on the ballot as early as next March. That would coincide with the Democratic Party’s presidential primary in California.
Recognizing it’s too late to make big changes now, advocates are looking toward the second bond to revise the formula. O’Donnell said he remains open to having more discussions and improving the program. He said he left “placeholder” wording regarding the 2022 bond to allow that to happen.
But that wording doesn’t commit the Legislature to study reforming the current formula or to change it. That’s why the League of Women Voters, the ACLU and the student advocacy groups Public Advocates and the Advancement Project said they would support AB 48 only if it includes language specifically to address inequities that Vincent’s study cited.
“I have seen enough to raise concerns about equity. As the bill moves forward will you make an effort to look into these issues?” Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, asked O’Donnell before voting to pass the bill.