February 27, 2000 - From the February, 2000 issue

Don't Let Belmont Kill School Bond Reform: Sen. O'Connell Maks The Case For Prop. 26

Prop. 26 would make it easier for localities to secure school bonds by lowering the majority required for passage from 2/3 to 50 percent. Polls show a clear majority everywhere but Southern California, whose dismal support threatens to kill its chances. Why? Senator Jack O'Connell, who has debated the measure around the state, reports that the word "Belmont" resonates from Fresno to San Diego. TPR was pleased to speak with Jack about why the measure deserves another look.

Jack O'Connell

Senator, you've been a leader in the campaign for Proposition 26, which would reduce the vote needed to pass school bonds from two-thirds to a simple majority. Let's start with a general question: Why is this State measure important, and why have you been fighting so hard for it?

This measure will provide an additional tool for school districts in our State to address the school facilities crisis facing California's students. The two-thirds vote requirement is undemocratic-it's not right that it takes two "yes" votes to offset one "no" vote.

This measure will make it easier for local communities to invest in their communities. It will return local control to local school districts. It will enable school districts to build schools to their own unique educational needs, not to the fiscal limitations of the State.

It also builds in additional accountability. The measure requires two independent, outside audits-one financial and one performance. We also require a specific listing of projects that will be eligible for funding-only projects that have been listed prior to the bond's passage can get funds. None of that is currently in place.

And, if this measure passes, the Constitution of the State of California will dictate that the bond money not be used for administrators' or teachers' salary.

Senator, TPR reaches a mainly metropolitan Los Angeles audience, who follow school facilities through the media, and the word "Belmont" comes up incessantly. How do you address voter frustrations with that failed project when you talk positively about the need to pass Prop. 26?

Prop. 26 is drastically needed. Our educational infrastructure is aging-60% of our schools are over 30 years old. We need to modernize our schools, including getting them wired for Internet and e-mail access. Student enrollment is dramatically growing-it's estimated that, one year from today, there will be 60,000 additional students enrolled in our public school system. So the need is obvious.

And this measure will cause local communities to look inward for answers, not to the State. Local communities will become the funding source of first resort, not last resort.

You've been in a number of debates with representatives of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, who support the status quo idea of a two-thirds requirement to pass school bond measures. What is their best argument against Prop. 26, the one that gets the most applause.

The argument they use the most is that if districts really want to pass a bond measure, they can do so today. They point out that 53% of the school bonds have passed since 1986. But that's despite the fact that over 90% received more than 50% of the vote.

The two things to question are: How many school districts don't even attempt a bond measure because they know they can't attain that very difficult two-thirds vote? And how many school districts propose lower numbers for the same reason? For example, the Torrance School District had quantifiable needs of $120 million, but proposed a bond measure for one-third of that. Then, at the next school board meeting, they're deciding which leaky roofs not to fix or which restrooms not to repair.

The opposition's basic argument is that if it's not broken, we need not fix it. But our schools are broken. We need this investment. It's a necessary tool to make significant changes in how we deliver school facilities.

Elaborate more on your responses to their arguments.


Just recently in San Diego, a gentleman who's a strong private school voucher advocate stated that many school districts intentionally don't repair leaky roofs or faulty restrooms in order to engender public support for bond measures.

But that's just ludicrous. Many of our opponents just do not support the public school system. They simply don't understand. They likely haven't been on a public school campus since they walked out the door after their high school graduation-and the school they walked out of probably hasn't changed one iota, other than maybe a coat of paint and a couple of portable classrooms.

If we want to continue our successful class size reduction program-and I authored that program-if we want to modernize and rehabilitate our schools, if we want to make them as safe as possible, we desperately need to pass Prop. 26.

A number of school districts outside of L.A. Unified-like Long Beach, Pasadena and Glendale-are experimenting with smaller schools as centers of neighborhoods in partnership with parks and libraries, etc. Is this the outcome you're suggesting Prop. 26 would permit-to promote these kinds of neighborhood reinvestments and joint-uses?

Prop. 26 is very consistent with the goals of New Schools • Better Neighborhoods. It's one more tool to better incorporate and integrate the needs of the community with our public educational institutions.

Where does the initiative stand now with the voters? The controversy in L.A. is surely a weight on your shoulders, but give us a sense of how the March 7th initiative stands now in early February?

This initiative provides systemic, fundamental change that will really revolutionize the way we fund and build schools.

When this measure passes, you'll see home values increase in neighborhoods that modernize and rehabilitate their schools. That's why we have such broad-based support. The realtors enthusiastically support this measure. The building industry enthusiastically supports this measure. The Chamber of Commerce, California Manufacturers Association, California Business Roundtable, and the League of Women Voters have all endorsed this measure. Even law enforcement groups support it because they understand the benefit of having newer and more modern schools that will be open longer.

We've put together a great coalition that will hopefully bring us to victory on March 7th, but it will be very close.

Finally, give our readers a sense of what will happen if this measure passes, as well as what the consequences will be if it doesn't pass?

If it passes, it will mean more local control over school facilities. We'll be able to seriously engage in discussions for additional class size reduction. We'll be able to provide the necessary infrastructure and technology for our students. And we'll make that investment with accountability.

If we're not successful, schools will continue to get older. It will be more difficult, if not impossible, to see further class size reduction. And we'll simply continue to see dilapidated schools blighting our existing neighborhoods.


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