Los Angeles Doesn’t Need More School Bonds

In a new column, Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell writes:

The Los Angeles Unified School District is asking voters to approve a $7 billion school bond, the largest local school bond in the history of the United States. While it may not measure up to a $700 billion Wall Street bailout, this plan is similarly extravagant and just as imprudent. The L.A. Unified board decided to place the $7 billion bond, Measure Q, on the November ballot instead of the more responsible $3.2 billion originally proposed. They pulled the $7 billion figure out of thin air, admitting they don’t even know how all of the money will be spent. Los Angeles taxpayers have already committed to $13.5 billion — plus interest — in school bonds since 1997. Combine that with matching funds from the state and taxpayers have put up $20 billion for the district’s ongoing facilities construction program. LAUSD still has about $5.7 billion left to spend under those measures, but claims $60 billion is now needed to repair and build new schools. Alarm bells should be sounding for taxpayers. The district’s fiscal incompetence has been on display for the world to see. LAUSD’s Roybal Learning Center made national headlines for opening recently. Formerly named the Belmont Learning Center, the school took nearly 20 years to build and is the most expensive high school construction project ever built in the U.S., costing taxpayers more than $400 million. Is that the kind of financial management voters should reward with an additional $7 billion? Even the school district’s own bond oversight committee has stopped short of fully endorsing the bonds. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who chairs the bond oversight committee, said, “The way this bond has been teed up borders on incompetence.” The district already has enough money to allow every student to attend a neighborhood school on a traditional two-semester schedule, which was supposed to be the main goal of the $20 billion LAUSD has spent over the last 10 years. The question of why the school district needs more money is real and should be addressed. Los Angeles school officials are asking taxpayers for $7 billion even though fewer children are now attending Los Angeles schools. L.A. Unified has lost 57,000 students, nearly 8 percent of its total enrollment in the last decade. According to reports, the district estimates its schools will have a 16 percent vacancy rate by 2012. It will have the capacity to seat 670,000 students, but only 560,000 are expected to enroll. In fact, in January 2008, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted to downsize its construction and remodeling program because of a lack of enrollment. The board of education voted to eliminate more than 1,000 seats at five new schools. The district has canceled plans for 19 new schools and additions to several campuses citing declining enrollment. Even more troubling, the Daily News reports that a “review of salaries and staffing shows LAUSD’s bureaucracy ballooned by nearly 20 percent from 2001 to 2007. Over the same period, 500 teaching positions were cut and enrollment dropped by 6 percent.” Los Angeles residents are facing tight fiscal pressures. Home values are falling. California has the sixth highest tax burden in the nation. And the state faces a $15 billion deficit. With declining enrollments and a history of construction boondoggles like Belmont Learning Center, taxpayers should be more than leery of giving LAUSD a $7 billion blank check that allocates billions to unnamed, yet-to-be-determined “future priorities.”