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Prop 51 sparks debate about the best way to fix California schools

Hannah Kingsley-Ma
Students in the lunchroom at Park Elementary School in Hayward.


Park Elementary School in Hayward is a cheerful place. The halls are dotted with murals of tiny green handprints and scribbled-on schoolwork, and the principal makes her rounds through the halls helping kids tie their shoes.

There’s an outdoor garden, a new recycling program, and a soccer field where kids can run around to their hearts content.  But take a closer look, and you'll see that some parts of the building need an upgrade  — upgrades that the school district just can’t really afford at the moment.


Steven Fallon is the director for Maintenance, Operations Transportation and Security for the Hayward Unified School District. Park Elementary is one of the older schools in the area, and its age shows. He points out dry rot in some of the doorways and cracked asphalt in an outdoor play area he wishes he had the money to fix.


“We'll patch it as best we can,” he tells me. “But it would cost approximately $350,000 to $400,000 per school.”


Park Elementary is one of over 30 schools in the district, which means funding gets prioritized towards the most urgent projects. Beyond that, money is tight. Fallon tells me that when there are budget cuts, maintenance is usually the first thing to go.


“We’ve lost 21 positions in maintenance over five years,” he tells me.

Another concern of his is deferred maintenance. The longer schools wait on construction projects, often the more expensive they become. Fallon estimates that the district is most likely in need of 10 new roofs — a cost that will rise if they’re not dealt with soon.


But Hayward isn’t the only school district that’s finding it hard to fund construction and maintenance projects. Across the state, there’s a lot of need. Californians haven’t voted on a school construction bond in 10 years, and state funding has dried up. Proposition 51, a statewide measure on this November’s ballot, would replenish those coffers, with nine billion dollars worth of general-obligation bonds.


Most of this money would be set aside for K-12 schools: building new facilities, and modernizing old ones like Park Elementary. Another big chunk would be spent on community colleges, and a smaller portion would go to charter schools and career technical programs.


The State Legislative Analyst’s office predicts that if Proposition 51 passes, it would cost the state $17.6 billion with interest.


Inequity in schools


According to Jeff Vincent, the Deputy Director at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools, there isn’t that much centralized data on the state of infrastructure on public schools in California. So he and his colleagues have spent a lot of their time trying to find out what they can about maintenance spending and construction.  


“Our research has shown that over half of schools in the state are pretty significantly underinvesting in their school buildings,” he tells me. “And this really raises concerns about what are the conditions and qualities of these schools? Are they safe and healthy, are the educationally appropriate?”


Part of Vincent’s research is understanding the ways school construction projects can exacerbate inequality.


“School districts serving more low-income children who qualify for free and reduced lunch? They're actually spending more per student out of their operating budget on their facilities than higher income school districts are. And this raised big flags for us,” he says.


Without state funding, local communities have to raise the money for construction on their own, through local developer fees and local bond measures. This leaves poorer communities at a disadvantage. A school like Park Elementary — where most kids qualify for free and reduced lunch — can’t just tap into a pool of money when they need to build new doorways.

But that doesn’t mean if state funding gets introduced into the mix through Proposition 51 this disparity will disappear.


“An equitable approach to allocating state funds is not baked into the program,” says Vincent.  


The way state money gets allocated is through something called the School Facilities Program. It’s essentially a first-come, first-serve, grant-matching program. That means schools have to apply, get in line, and show the state they can match most or all of the money they’d receive. Because of this, critics of Proposition 51 say it doesn’t go far enough to be equitable. Wealthier schools have more resources to make this a lived reality.




School construction bonds haven’t always been a contentious issue, says Jeff Vincent.


“All four of the last school construction bonds that have passed in the state of California have had very broad support across the aisle and with governors,” he says. “And we're now at a time when this new one, Prop 51, doesn't have that.”


Governor Jerry Brown is a particularly vocal opponent, in part because most of the funding for this proposition comes from construction companies and developers, who stand to benefit economically from this money. It’s one of the aspects that’s making some voters wary, along with the concern that the neediest schools won’t be prioritized. But others argue  what’s worse than that is no money at all, for any school.


“If Prop 51 fails, the inequities across districts are most certainly to widen, and are we willing to pay that price?” asks Jeff Vincent. “If Proposition 51 passes, it will definitely provide funding to assist districts with a lot of those needs across the state. Will it go far enough? No it won't.”


It’s a tough choice to make. Voters can either deprive schools of much-needed money, in hopes that desperation sparks reform, or voters can sign off on a costly bond that might not go where it really needs to.


Regardless of the outcome, both sides agree: it’s time to have a long, hard look at school maintenance and construction and how much the state should help pay for it. Because what’s at stake is kids’ long-term health and safety.


Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a reporter and producer living in San Francisco.