By Scott Wilk
Rows of desks, lined up in utilitarian classrooms, may have been the norm in schools built during the Industrial Revolution – but today we know more about how children learn. Studies have found that lousy test results are associated with classrooms that are noisy, poorly lit, hot and full of artificial light.
Schools are not factories and should not look like one. The school environment has a powerful impact on how students perform. That is one of the reasons California voters approved Proposition 51 in 2016, a $9 billion bond to build and modernize K-12 schools and community colleges. However, until now less than 10 percent of that money has been allocated despite a massive $3.2 billion backlog of “shovel-ready” projects.
Prop. 51 is about more than just repairing and replacing dilapidated school facilities. It can also be used to build laboratories and specialized facilities for career technical education. Such facilities would help expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs to help more students obtain high-paying jobs.
Gov. Gavin Newsom appears to see things differently than his predecessor. He is recommending $1.5 billion in Prop. 51 bond funds be sold in his 2019-20 budget. This is nearly double the amount allocated in the prior two budget years and will go a long way toward assisting local school districts in modernizing their aging campuses and constructing the new classrooms they urgently need.
As a newly appointed member of the State Allocation Board, the board responsible for distributing these funds, I welcome this change. Schools up and down the state are desperate for not only upgrades and expansions but also safety and infrastructure changes. We have requested the governor’s administration to begin immediately processing all of the new construction and modernization funding applications.
California voters spoke clearly in November 2016 when they passed Prop. 51. Delaying the sale of school facility bonds not only undermines the will of the voters, but also deprives students of safe and modern classrooms while increasing taxpayer costs and reducing buying power.
Since the introduction of the 2018-19 budget proposal, the backlog of completed applications ready for processing and funding has increased from $3.2 billion to $4.75 billion. The State Allocation Board already has received new construction applications exceeding the funds authorized by Prop. 51, and it is similarly expected to receive enough applications to exhaust voter-authorized modernization funding by summer.
The previous administration included only $653 million in school bond sales in the 2018-19 budget. This condemns California students to wait five to 10 years after a complete funding application is submitted before they can attend the new school or learn in the renovated classrooms.
New facilities are desperately needed in districts with population growth. Aging school facilities require updates and repairs to meet the needs of special education students, career technical education, and to ensure the health and safety of our students. 21st Century instruction and curriculum requires facilities that provide students with pathways to future careers.
Delaying state funding and bond sales increases taxpayer costs and reduces buying power. The federal government is looking to increase interest rates, and the bond market is already reflecting higher interest costs to sell bonds. In the next 18 months, California could see a significant increase from rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.
Further, statewide average construction costs are escalating by 6 to 8 percent per year, with much higher rates in multiple regions. According to a conservative estimate by the State Architect, California taxpayers are losing $245 million per month in local and state buying power to cost escalation from delayed school facilities projects.
The voters have clearly stated their desire for the state to invest in the construction, renovation and repair of our children’s school facilities and it is past time we make that happen. Every child in California deserves the best chance possible to be educated in a safe environment that is conducive to quality learning. As a member of the State Allocation Board and as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, I look forward to helping our school districts get the funding they need to make this happen.
Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, represents the 21st Senate District, which encompasses the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Victor valleys.