October 1, 2001 - From the October, 2001 issue

Urban Parks Bill Links Schools And Open Space; Asm. Frommer Addresses State's Role In Facilities

The State of California has always been proactive when dealing with the environment. However, this attention has been focused mainly on pristine open space at the fringe, forcing the inhabitants of dense, urban metropolises to be forgotten. California State Assemblymember Dario Frommer, author of AB 1841, hopes to change that paradigm by incentivizing, not only urban parks, but joint-use. TPR is pleased to present this interview, in which Dario talks about urban parks and schools, as well as the environmental ramifications and funding mechanisms that go with them hand-in-hand.


Dario Frommer

Asemblymember Frommer, you crafted AB 1841 to allocate money for neighborhood parks and joint-use projects. Give our readers some background on that bill. Why is it important? And how will it change the way our parks and schools are designed and constructed?

California has a reputation for being very progressive when it comes to protecting our environment and setting aside pristine land for environmental protection. Yet, we've failed to afford our cities the same priority and because of that they have fallen well below the national average for parkland and open space. AB 1841 focuses on remedying that problem and working with communities to help them build parks and preserve open space.

And given the fiscal uncertainties ahead of us, what's the likelihood that Gov. Davis will sign it?

There's a very good chance of the measure being signed because it works in tandem with a $2.6 billion bond measure aimed at allocating additional monies for parks. The intention of AB 1841 is to act as a complement to that bond so that we have a new framework for allocating that bond money.

Part of this new paradigm that you are trying to create includes the encouragement of joint-use projects and agreements between school districts and parks departments. We have seen some agencies embrace this mindset and work collaboratively with the public and private sector, i.e. San Diego Unified. And then there are other districts, such as LAUSD, which have historically stood apart from every other jurisdiction and wanted to be in total control. What would your bill do to move everybody in the same direction?

We want to encourage entities to team up and invest in joint-use, particularly in areas like L.A. County, where much of the landscape is built out. So, if a city and a school district decide they want to turn a gated playground into a neighborhood park, that project would get priority under AB 1841. The historic paradigm of one entity controlling everything will not work in our evolving urban environments. We need public entities to be creative if we are going to put a dent in the school facilities and open space shortages.

Another bill you have proposed is AB 1511, which aids school districts in dense settings by allowing them to lease space in commercial buildings that are Field Act compliant. What's the status of that bill? And is this change sufficient to encourage the aforementioned creativity you mention?

One of the problems inherent in dense, urban areas is that school districts are forced to purchase property, tear down the existing structure and build anew. Yet, buildings that were constructed after 1980 are built to the same seismic standards as school facilities. It begs the question, why can't we use existing buildings that comply with Field Act standards? Many school districts tell me that they would much prefer to acquire a building, remodel it for school needs and move forward rather than tear down an existing structure and build a "school."

AB 1511 was on its way to the Governor's desk, but we pulled it back at the Governor's request. We have agreed to work with him to create a task force that will draft specific guidelines whereby school districts would be able to lease existing buildings and use them for school facilities.

Dario, let's talk about the whole school facility reform effort and its funding. In the spring, the Legislative Analyst's Office issued a rather critical report on how school bond funds had been utilized over the last decade. Those recommendations failed to garner much interest in the Legislature. How difficult is it to make substantive structural reform at the state level in the way we fund school facilities in California?

It's a David versus Goliath fight right now. You have a certain cadre of interest groups in Sacramento who believe they know it all. They're not interested in hearing criticism, new ideas or new philosophies. And because of them, those of us advocating for reform are having a difficult time being heard. That's why the 2002 School Bond Measure has yet to be approved.

Let me hone in on this reform effort and get a better understanding of why it's so difficult. The LAO report says, "We recommend the Legislature develop a new blueprint for the state-district school facilities partnership. In our view, this new blueprint should include three conceptual changes: first, the Legislature should create an ongoing revenue stream for school facilities finance to replace its existing system of bond financing. Second the Legislature should redirect the state's focus away from funding specific lists of school projects. In its place the Legislature should establish a program oriented toward helping all districts provide educational facilities for children. Lastly, the state should clarify the state and the district's role and responsibilities regarding school facilities." It seems easy enough. Why are such recomendations not law today?

School siting should have an ongoing revenue stream. But what happens during an economic downturn? What if revenues are lower than projections? That uncertainty begs the question of how to integrate bond financing into the school construction framework. Ultimately, there should be a mix between a long-term allocation and bond finance that can change and flex depending on the economy.

We also need to revise the current definition of responsibility. We have focused on the needs of un-housed children-which is extremely important in terms of reducing overcrowding and multi-track schools-but there are other issues that we must face. Some districts have aging facilities that must be revamped. Other districts desperately need new facilities. And those problems are not restricted to the large urban districts like LAUSD, they include the rural areas of the state which have seen very little of the current allocation.

Each district in the state has unique problems and we need to devise a system that can address the problems of each district individually, regardless of whether it is an urban district in Southern California or a rural district in Central California. We need to make sure that there is money for both rural and urban districts.

Well said, but let's continue to hone in on why it's so difficult to implement these changes and thus increase the collaboration among school districts and their city partners for the planning and the siting o new school facilities.

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Simply put, there is a reticence to change. There is an institutional way of doing things and nobody wants to alter that. Many school districts simply do not want to be collaborating with other agencies at any level unless they have to.

Most school districts are more concerned with maxing out their share of the state allocation money so that they can return to their constituencies and say, "See. We delivered school construction funds to you." Often this is done without regard to the best policy for today or for the future.

What we really need to do is bring together legislators, parents, planners and others who have really called this process into question and have them put pressure on both the Legislature and these school districts. That's the only way we are going to bring about a new type of philosophy that's more reflective of the state's long-term goals, not just the short-term goals of politicians.

Obviously, Belmont is a landmark case dealing with the integration of health and safety and school facilities planning. In the Sept. issue of our sister-publication Metro Investment Report Angelo Bellomo, LAUSD's Director of Environmental Health and Safety stated, "Despite an increased commitment from the school district to build safer schools, there is substantial potential for delay imposed by the state. To be sure the process is onerous at times. But for the vast majority of sites, the sledgehammer approach of the state is overly burdensome." Is he right? Is there a legislative remedy needed?

The state passed a law after the Belmont debacle that requires school districts to get an additional approval on new school sites from the Department of Toxic Substance Control, yet nobody thought to give the DTSC additional employees to review and process those environmental reviews. Compound that with the already cumbersome process whereby school districts are forced to deal with a multitude of different agencies at the state to receive a bevy of ancillary approvals and the school construction process becomes extremely laborious.

I'd like to see a one-stop shop where we combine all the necessary functions into a single office of public school construction. Let's work with districts to inform them of what they need to have in their plans and their applications. Let's have people that are empowered to cut through red tape to get reviews done. We obviously want to make sure our schools are safe, but we must find a way to speed up this process.

Angelo went on to argue a similar point as you, but recommended that perhaps the state should designate the Department of Education as the lead agency. Is he right?

The Dept. of Education is one possibility, but other departments such as the State Architect or Department of Public School Construction would be just as qualified.

However, it won't work if you simply combine all of those functions into a single office. We must empower somebody to be a facilitator, to make sure there's a conversation going on with the districts. They need to understand what the timeframe is for their plan, their review and what potential pitfalls may lie ahead. We need to put someone there who will work aggressively to communicate with the districts so that we can minimize the number of surprises, revisions and resubmittals and really streamline this process.

Don't you think one of the unintended consequences of all this aftermath of Belmont is that the community has been shut out of the collaborative process with school districts because the districts have to make sure that they have done all the environmental reviews before they can even consult with communities? Is that an unintended negative consequence?

School districts obviously will want to put their best foot forward. And that will necessitate attempts to get environmental clearance and due diligence completed before they present to the community. At this point in time that could be considered one unintended consequence, but it will take some time to see how prevalent that is.

However, with the current revisions underway in terms of the 2002 school bond measure, those concerns may not materialize further. We are currently reworking the language of that bill so that smarter school construction-such as smaller schools, joint-use projects and linkages between parks, libraries, community centers and health centers-is encouraged. Those creative approaches will make schools centers of community development. And that kind of structure will address the community and involve them in the school construction process as well as provide a way to leverage bond money for a variety of community issues.

Let's conclude with a question about the state budget and what's happened in the last six months. Give us some insight into the havoc being caused by the lingering effects of 9/11, the energy crisis and the possibility of an impending recession?

There has been an economic and political earthquake in terms of our state and our country. Because of that we are now saddled with the burden of unspeakable possibilities of terrorist scenarios upon our water supplies, roads, bridges, power plants and public buildings. These are a new slew of dangers that were unheard of just 1 month ago. And those concerns will create a further burden on the state's already stretched budget and on our slowing economy.

To compound that, the PUCs unwillingness to move forward and enable the Treasurer to sell power bonds is further crippling our state. That reluctance puts the General Fund on the hook for billions of dollars. And that, in turn, threatens all the programs we have mentioned above as well as a lot of programs that may become necessary because of 9/11. We are in a very precarious position and if we are not careful we will be forced to cut programs that we care very deeply about-from public schools to health care-and that would be tragic.

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