August 3, 2008

Passing School Bonds Will Be Difficult

By Monica Rodriguez

POMONA - Passing an education bond can be difficult during tough economic times but not impossible, according to experts.

"It's certainly going to be harder than most other times," said Redlands-based regional economist John Husing.

That means advocates for both Pomona Unified and Bonita Unified school districts have some work ahead of them. The leaders of each of the districts voted in July to place bond measures on the November ballot.

Pomona Unified board members Thursday approved asking voters in Pomona and part of Diamond Bar to approve a $235 million bond measure to pay for a long list of projects ranging from updating infrastructure such as plumbing, heating and air-conditioning systems to the reconfiguration of campuses in order to accommodate schools within schools called academies.

The academies, as the district calls them, are intended to offer students programs designed to keep them interested in school, challenge them academically, and give them skills that put them on a career path after graduation - with graduation being a key goal.

District administrators said every campus would have a project completed with proceeds from the bond.

Bonita Unified board members decided July 9 to ask voters in San Dimas and La Verne to approve an $83.5 million bond measure.

The bond proceeds would allow Bonita Unified to carry out modernization projects and provide money to build a performing arts center at San Dimas High that would be available for use by all district schools; new gyms at San Dimas High and Bonita High; and a new track at San Dimas High that would meet CIF requirements and allow for CIF meets to take place there.

Various other projects would be completed at other schools in both cities within Bonita Unified's district.

Husing said under the current economic conditions people are scared and aren't prepared to spend and are reluctant to approve tax increases.

However, if the purpose of a tax hike is for education-related projects people tend to be more understanding.

"People value an educated society," he said.

Overall school bonds tend to do well in California, said Steve Frates, senior fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

In general, school bonds have a "good track record" of being approved in California, Frates said, although there were a few that weren't approved when state rules required two-thirds of voters to approve a bond to pass.

Proposition 39, approved by state voters in 2000, says bond measures require a 55percent approval to pass, but districts must also meet a series of requirements such as establishing oversight committees and have performance audits to monitor spending of bond funds.

For bond measures to pass, districts have to make a case before voters that the money generated by the bond will be a long-term investment on campuses and their students, said Lawrence Picus, an expert in school finance and a professor at USC.

"Not only is it an investment in facilities, it's an investment that will help children do better in school," Picus said.

Studies have shown concepts such as establishing smaller learning communities within large schools, magnet schools, and other approaches result in better prepared students and improved graduation rates, he said.

Better educated students are more successful and have better incomes than their parents, and that benefits everyone in the community, Picus said.

Districts find they need to invest on their buildings, he said. During the last 30 years the state made less money available for schools and as a result school buildings have often been neglected, Picus said.

Although it may be a challenge to convince voters that a bond is needed, Bonita Unified has business people and residents, including seniors, who see the importance of education, said Robin Carder.

"They want what's best for children," said Carder, a former member of the Bonita Unified school board and the chairwoman of a committee charged with advocating for the passage of the district's bond measure.

The district has been able to make improvements over the last few years at its schools and people would like to see other needs met, Carder said.

In Pomona, the list of projects is based on meetings with parents and district residents, said John Avila, president of the Pomona Unified board of trustees.

[email protected]

(909) 483-9336

(c) 2008 San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.