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Fast One, Roy 

Now that L.A.-schools chief got his school bond, he can watch enrollment drop by 100,000

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006
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LOS ANGELES SCHOOL OFFICIALS hit the electoral jackpot in November, persuading voters to pass a $4 billion school-construction bond measure — the fourth in less than a decade and the second within two years. Even some district leaders were surprised by how enthusiastically voters embraced Measure Y.

Five months after the bond measure passed, Superintendent Roy Romer has produced new demographic projections showing that the Los Angeles Unified School District expects enrollment to drop by more than 100,000 students over a six-year span, once independent charter schools — which are eligible for only 1 percent of Measure Y funds — are factored out of the equation.

Romer’s latest budget — posted Monday on the district Web site — shows that Measure Y, which promised to reduce overcrowding by constructing 20,000 new classroom seats, passed just in time for enrollment to drop by up to 20,000 each year.

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Opponents of the bond measure accused Romer of being less than candid about the magnitude of the enrollment decline during his campaign for the bond, the district’s fourth property-tax hike since 1997. They also questioned whether the school board timed the bond to coincide not with the district’s needs but with Romer’s desire to leave a legacy before he steps down.

“It appears, based on these projections, that he probably knew that the schools weren’t needed,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, who signed the ballot argument against Measure Y. “But if he could get the money, he would build the schools, whether or not they were needed.”

Ironically, the school-construction program has been the one point of agreement in the fractious relationship between the school board and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is seeking to take over L.A. Unified. Even as he blasted the district on Tuesday as a place where students don’t learn, Villaraigosa boasted that he was among the bond measure’s biggest champions: “I’m the only elected official who was willing to stand up with the superintendent of the school district on Measure Y.”

Councilman Jose Huizar, a Villaraigosa ally who left the school board in December, also backed Measure Y. But where Villaraigosa was an enthusiastic cheerleader, Huizar had been deeply ambivalent, saying he saw no urgency in pursuing another bond so quickly when the district still had money left over from the prior bonds. Huizar, who saw skyrocketing rents force his constituents to move to San Bernardino and Riverside, suggested without success that the district wait two years and then re-assess changing enrollment patterns. “[Measure Y] was focused primarily on elementary schools, and that’s where we have less and less students coming in,” said Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights and El Sereno.

Huizar said school-board members knew when they went for the bond that the district was losing students at a rate of at least 10,000 per year. Yet they pressed ahead, fearing that their window of opportunity would close with the voters after Romer steps down in September 2007. “They rushed it because they felt they had a superintendent who was good at passing bonds, and everyone knew he would not be around a long time and wanted to do it while he was here,” he said.

Former school-board member Caprice Young agreed, adding that Romer saw the bond program as “his baby” and wanted to make sure it was fully funded after he left. “I think the board rightly realized that without Roy Romer, that bond had no chance of getting passed,” she said.

Romer agreed that the money in Measure Y won’t be needed for another four or five years, since the district is still spending state matching funds and money left over from measures R and K, which passed in 2002 and 2004 and provided a combined $7.2 billion. But he said that the district fully assessed the decreasing-enrollment projections before proposing Measure Y, and concluded that the funds still could go toward the much-needed elimination of 200,000 aging classroom bungalows, expansion of full-day kindergarten, and new classrooms that will be needed once the high-school dropout rate is brought under control.

“I wanted to do it before I left,” Romer said. “It’s a skill set I have, and the kids needed it. The city needs it. When you look back on this 20 years from now, it’s going to be one of the greatest [periods] of redoing the face of Los Angeles.”

Romer dismissed warnings of overbuilding, saying the only places where schools might have to close because of a lack of students are the Westside and the west San Fernando Valley. And school-board member Marlene Canter said the board acted out of a sense of urgency, not out of a fear of Romer’s departure. “I’ll tell you one thing — we will not build schools if there’s not going to be children to be in them,” she said.

District officials blame the drop in enrollment on rising home prices and increasingly popular charter schools, the only places gaining students. With charter schools, enrollment is expected to drop from 746,610 in the 2003-’04 school year to 677,310 in 2009-’10; without charters, enrollment plummets from 727,133 to 625,141.

WHILE DISTRICT OFFICIALS SAID that they have known for some time about the long-term enrollment decline, their own attorneys fought to keep the issue out of the Measure Y ballot pamphlet. Before the November 8 election, an L.A. Unified parent challenged the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association’s ballot argument, which stated that the district was losing students and had no immediate need for another measure.

The law firm representing the parent, Strumwasser and Woocher, helped the school district write the language for Measure Y. The firm failed to persuade a judge to strip language from the ballot argument stating, among other things, that the district expected a “long-term trend of declining enrollment.” The lawyers argued in its legal documents that the district had figures available only through 2008 — and that the data beyond that year suggested rising, not falling, enrollment.

“The assertion that LAUSD is expecting long-term declining enrollment is false and misleading,” the law firm wrote. “The projections to which the argument refers do not represent a long-term projection and are immaterial to Measure Y.”

Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the taxpayer association, said his group relied on the district’s 2005-’06 budget. “We were using their numbers. And it turns out, unfortunately, that we were correct,” he said.

The 79-page ballot language for Measure Y sent a conflicting message on just how many classrooms would be built. While it promised to fund the construction of 20,000 classroom seats, the ballot identified projects covering more than 126,000 seats. Some were already under way when voters decided the fate of Measure Y, and a few were already filled with students.

The two previous school-construction bond measures were focused on overcrowding at the high-school and middle-school levels, working to move children from a multitrack calendar back to a 180-day, two-semester school year. Under a legal settlement reached with the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the district must eliminate the “Concept 6” calendar — which has 17 fewer days in the school year — by July 2012, a task that will require a total of 170,000 seats, said deputy chief facilities executive Guy Mehula.

The district expects that 70,000 classroom seats will have been finished by the end of 2006. Still, Mehula also said the drop in enrollment has put the district ahead of schedule in its effort to address overcrowding. In a single year, the number of schools that rely on involuntary busing dropped from 55 to 22 — ahead of the district’s projections by 23 schools. The number of schools operating on the Concept 6 calendar was reduced by roughly a third, from 130 to 85 — putting the district ahead of schedule by 41 schools.

Mehula predicted that enrollment will start increasing again in 2014 or 2015. But, he added, no one can be sure. “Demography is not a science. It’s art,” he said.

Young said that Measure Y will be needed even if enrollment drops. But she argued too little will go toward charter schools, which are part of the district but unburdened by state-education regulations.

The district expects enrollment in its independent charter schools to double, from 23,852 in the 2004-’05 school year to 52,169 in 2009-’10. Although $50 million is available in Measure Y for charter schools, few have tapped the money, because of the district’s bureaucracy, said Young, who heads the California Charter Schools Association.

“They’re sitting on $100 million at the same time that charter schools are having to find church basements and warmed-over warehouses,” she said.

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