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Tuesday, Jul 23, 2024
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Commentary—Fixing schools and the way they spend money

California’s business community has long made providing first-rate, quality schools a top priority and the upcoming November election is no exception.

Business leaders including the California Business Roundtable, California Chamber of Commerce, California Business for Education Excellence and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association are all taking a prominent role in the efforts to gain voter approval of Proposition 39 on the November ballot , a measure that would reform the way school districts raise and spend local school bonds while adding increased accountability and taxpayer protections to the process.

Preparing today’s students to be the work force of tomorrow is vitally important to the state’s continued economic prosperity. Providing our children with the classrooms and learning environment that foster educational growth is critical to that effort.

Proposition 39 represents a fiscally responsible approach to fixing our aging, overcrowded schools and classrooms. First and foremost, passage of Proposition 39 would implement rigid new accountability requirements strictly governing the way administrators spend voter-approved school bonds. Second, Proposition 39 would allow districts to pass local school bonds by a tough-but-fair 55 percent super-majority , only if the district agrees to adhere to the strict accountability requirements set forth in the initiative.

How Money Is Spent

Before we can fix our schools, we must first fix how local school bond money is spent in order to cut back on the waste and mismanagement that has plagued many districts. If voters approve Proposition 39 in November, districts that pass local school bonds by a 55 percent super-majority would be required to follow tough new accountability provisions. These provisions include a prohibition against using bond funds for administrative salaries or bureaucracy, a requirement that districts undergo two rigid annual fiscal and performance audits, and the establishment of new citizen watchdog committees comprised of local homeowners, taxpayers, seniors, parents and business leaders empowered to take steps to stop any project and seek prosecution if audits show wasteful or unauthorized spending.

Related Legislation

Passage of Proposition 39 will also add new taxpayer protections, including a cap on the amount property taxes can increase as the result of a local school bond. If , and only if , Proposition 39 passes, companion legislation (AB-1908) already signed by Gov. Gray Davis will kick into effect that will place a cap on the amount property taxes can be raised by a local school bond , which amounts to less than $100 per year for the average California homeowner , and also prohibit these bond votes except during regularly scheduled elections.

As it stands, California schools are among the most overcrowded in the nation and experts predict we’ll need 20,000 new classrooms over the next 10 years just to keep pace with student population growth. Some classrooms must accommodate as many as 50 students at a time , making it all but impossible to learn. Research has shown that students in overcrowded schools score significantly lower on both mathematics and reading exams. And although our state is leading the technological boom, California ranks dead last in students per instructional computers.

Furthermore, these figures don’t even take into account the need to expand class size reduction programs, which have already proven to enhance student learning and performance. Implementation and expansion of these programs will require further tools to ensure that these proven programs can continue and flourish.

Funds Badly Needed

The state Department of Education estimates that local school districts will require more than $40 billion over the next 10 years for school construction and repair. Even with the current budget surplus, the state cannot devote that much additional money to schools. Too many other state programs are competing for the surplus, and there is no guarantee that surpluses will be there in years hence.

Local school construction bonds give voters the ability to build and repair schools and classrooms when and where they’re needed. But despite the overwhelming need, only about a third of California’s 1,000-odd school districts have passed a school bond since 1986. Many have failed on multiple occasions ,some as many as five times. One hundred and eleven districts have never passed a bond, although they have tried.

Responsibility

As individual citizens and as corporate citizens, we all have a responsibility , and a vested financial interest , to address our school facilities needs. If we’re going to rely on local school bonds to finance these projects, it is critical that we give local districts a realistic opportunity to pass those bonds. But first, we must also take steps to overhaul the way administrators spend money to protect taxpayers and to eliminate the waste and mismanagement that has plagued some districts throughout the state.

This is the rationale behind Proposition 39. This measure represents a fiscally responsible approach to fixing our aging, overcrowded schools and classrooms by reforming the way local districts raise and spend capital for school construction and repair.

Given the serious condition of California schools, it is imperative that the business community stand together to promote serious solutions to fixing our schools and fixing the way our schools spend money. Proposition 39 is a serious solution that does both.

Hauck is president of the California Business Roundtable.

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