California schools facilities needs make case for proposed bond measure

In a June 17 EdSource webinar, Building for the future: Funding school renovation & construction, a panel of school facilities experts discussed a proposed school bond measure making its way through the Legislature.

Assembly Bill 48 (O’Donnell-D, Long Beach), the Kindergarten-Community Colleges Public Education Facilities Bond Acts of 2020 and 2022, would place a $13 billion school facilities bond on the March 2020 ballot and an additional bond of as-yet-undefined value on the November 2022 ballot. Panelists included CSBA Legislative Advocate Eric Bakke; Murdoch, Walrath & Holmes Legislative Advocate and Elk Grove Unified School District board member Nancy Chaires Espinoza; researcher and co-author of a Getting Down to Facts II study on financing school facilities Jeff Vincent; and San Bernardino Unified board member Barbara Flores.

The need is evident

The panel decidedly agreed to the need for the school facilities bond, pointing out that the last bond — Prop 51, a $9 billion bond approved by voters in 2016 — has already been depleted and building projects are continuing to pile up in a backlog. “New applications are being submitted at an annual rate of $600 million for new construction and twice that for modernization,” said Chaires Espinoza. She said schools rely upon bond money for new construction and modernization because there is no continual source of funding in this area for California schools.

Data backs up the need for more school bond funds. Researcher Vincent estimates that, of the 310,000 classrooms in California, 75 percent are more than 25 years old, 30 percent are more than 50 years old and 10 percent are more than 70 years old. In addition, the state has over 75,000 portable classrooms that require regular maintenance. These buildings experience heavy wear and tear, year in and year out, and the majority of funding needed is for modernization projects.

New programs would ease burden on small districts

Vincent, who is also co-author of the 2018 Getting Down to Facts II paper, “Financing School Facilities in California: A 10-Year Perspective,” raised the question of equitable distribution of bond funds. While new construction is fairly evenly distributed across the state, he said modernization program funds go disproportionately to wealthier districts with higher property values. He theorized that districts with higher property values were able to both pass bonds and raise local money to get the match from the state (the state matches 50 percent of funds for new construction and kicks in 60 percent of funds for modernization projects) at a higher rate than their lower property value counterparts.

AB 48 includes new programs that aim to ease the burden on rural and lower-income districts when it comes to raising local dollars for bonds, said CSBA’s Bakke. Those programs include a small school district assistance program that would, as proposed, provide advanced funding for design, reserve funds so districts would have the time needed to develop their projects, technical assistance and an increased bonding capacity that would allow more small school districts to receive financing assistance. The financial hardship criteria would also be adjusted (increasing the threshold so more districts can qualify for projects without raising the full local contribution). “Hopefully, this bill will open the door for more schools to participate,” Bakke said.

Other new programs in the proposed bond include money for preschool facilities on school sites, the replacement of buildings over 75 years old, a supplemental grant for “minimum essential facilities” (such as school gymnasiums and libraries), and the inclusion of testing and remediation for lead in drinking water.

On Wednesday, June 19, AB 48 passed through the Senate Education Committee with unanimous approval and will next be heard in the Assembly Governance and Finance Committee.