Growing up in a family that is deeply rooted in the education community, I learned at a young age that there are a variety of things that can influence students at school and affect how they learn. One of those variables is the school itself. Providing a safe learning environment is one step towards providing the quality education that our children deserve.
As you may remember, last November California voters approved a statewide $9 billion school bond measure to help complete school construction projects across the state. Specifically, Proposition 51 continues a successful state program that provides matching state funds to local school districts to ensure students have access to safe, well-equipped school campuses.
Unfortunately, we have a major problem: Gov. Jerry Brown, who opposed the legislation to send the school bond to the voters, has been dragging his feet on the distribution of these school bonds – leaving far too many districts scrambling to cover the shortfall.
On average, more than 90 percent of previous statewide school bond funds have been appropriated within four years of being approved by voters. In Proposition 51’s case, one year after passing, the state has only sold $443 million or 4 percent, of the available bond funds..
The state has a current backlog of more than $2.4 billion in applications for school construction funds. In Kern County alone, 10 new construction projects and 14 school modernization projects are waiting on over $65 million in state funds. To see the full list of projects, visit www.dgs.ca.gov/opsc/Resources/WLL_Reports.aspx.
These projects range from small modernization projects such as plumbing, lighting, and electrical systems to large-scale new construction projects like constructing roofs or even classrooms and entire buildings.
A large number of these applications were submitted back in 2012 and 2013 – which means an entire generation of students could be deprived of access to better, safer schools if the state does not start showing some urgency and release these bond funds.
Facility needs can have a massive impact on a child’s education. I recently had the opportunity to visit Maple Elementary School in Shafter. Maple is an extremely small school district with about 300 students and is currently tasked with replacing virtually their entire school. The students and staff at Maple are suffering through leaky roofs containing both mold and dry rot.
The deficient roofs have weakened and damaged interior structures and caused the electrical system to short circuit, resulting in an electrical system that can’t provide enough electricity to power all of the classrooms and administration buildings.
Thankfully, at last week’s State Allocation Board meeting, the members of the board voted to approve a change of scope that Maple submitted, effectively combining their four applications into one. The change of scope allows Maple to be eligible for more bond funds than before and will hopefully speed up the timeline to receive those funds. However, as appreciative as I am for their work with Maple and while this is a great first step, Maple has not and will not receive any funding until Governor Brown decides to step up and sell these school bonds.
Students at districts in similar situations to Maple – who have been waiting on state funds since 2013 – deserve updated, high quality school facilities. Unfortunately, bureaucratic delays leave school districts with terrible choices: delay school construction projects and leave kids in overcrowded, ill-equipped classrooms; or move forward with projects and try to cover the shortfall with general funds and hope for a reimbursement.
Part of the reason the state is so far behind is because the state exhausted its grant money in 2012, stopped processing state grant fund applications, and the governor opposed legislation in 2014 that would have placed an earlier statewide school bond on the ballot. Now we have a perfect storm of bureaucracy and as a result, students are suffering.
However, the consequences of the state’s delays are not strictly going to hurt students.
Construction costs typically increase by 6 percent each year, which means the purchasing power of districts is diminished for every year that passes without receiving state funds. The bottom line is that the longer we wait, the less in return school districts and taxpayers will receive.
If you are also tired of waiting for Gov. Brown to give school districts the money they deserve, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and my office will hand deliver your message to the governor’s office.
State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, represents California's 14th district. The opinions expressed are his own.