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State defunds program to fix ‘slum’ schools

Carlos Puma/California Watch Moreno Valley High School is awaiting $26 million from the state’s Emergency Repair Program. Repairs include fixing leaking roofs and rotting floors in portables and replacing the heating and air conditioning system.

Eight years after California settled a landmark lawsuit promising hundreds of millions of dollars to repair shoddy school facilities, more than 700 schools still are waiting for their share of funds as students take classes on dilapidated campuses with health and safety hazards.

California has funded less than half of the $800 million required by the Emergency Repair Program, which grew out of a class-action lawsuit against the state that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to settle. Since then, schools in 39 counties have waited as long as four years for the money to fix leaking roofs, crumbling pavement and clogged sewer lines.

As their projects languish without funding, schools are watching buildings deteriorate and hairline fissures split into cracks wide enough to swallow pennies. They’re scraping by with temporary fixes, diverting money from their classrooms and delaying other critical facility repairs.

In one case, Moreno Valley High School is owed $26 million for repairs, out of the nearly $445 million the state has approved but not paid.

Stan Brown was a student at the high school when Moreno Valley was on the verge of explosive growth as a bedroom community to Los Angeles and Orange counties. The town, once deserted by water-starved farmers, rebounded thanks to its military airfield built to train fighter pilots.

“When I was here in the ’70s, it was a very attractive school,” said Brown, who is now the Moreno Valley Unified School District’s director of maintenance and operations. But today, he said, “it’s beaten up.”

The school’s red brick buildings are dull with faded graffiti. Beige portables are crammed in tight rows, their facades peeling, roofs leaking and floors rotting. Basketball courts are cracked and brittle. The athletic field, surrounded by rusty chain-link fencing, is parched and lumpy with weeds, its uneven surface twisting ankles and scraping knees.

Brown would like to fix all these problems, but the money to do so has not come. Across Moreno Valley Unified, 15 schools are waiting for the state to deliver on more than $75 million.

“I think the title says enough, doesn’t it? Emergency Repair Program,” Brown said. “Should it take four years to fund an emergency?”

The Emergency Repair Program was born out of a landmark class-action lawsuit that sought to entitle every student to a clean, safe and functional school.

Williams v. California, filed in 2000 by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations, charged that tens of thousands of students, the majority low-income and nonwhite, were being deprived of basic educational opportunities by attending schools in “slum conditions.”

In school after school, students reported too few working toilets, infestations of rats and cockroaches, and illnesses brought on by mold and fungus in their classrooms.

Then-Gov. Gray Davis put up a contentious fight. Over four years, the state spent nearly $20 million in legal fees to quash the suit. When Davis was ousted in a recall election, Schwarzenegger called his predecessor’s position “outrageous.” In 2004, within a year of taking office, Schwarzenegger settled the lawsuit and declared: “We will neglect our children no more.”

California agreed to pay $800 million under the settlement for the state’s lowest-performing schools to address emergency conditions in their facilities.

“You had this cycle of disrepair,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California and the attorney overseeing the settlement’s implementation. “The concept of this program was where you have an urgent health and safety issue, you should be able to take care of that right away.”

Every year starting in the 2005-06 fiscal year, the state was supposed to put at least $100 million into the Emergency Repair Program using leftover education funds; the program should be in its final year of funding.

Instead, the state’s contributions to date – $338 million – have remained unchanged for the past five years. Money had barely begun to flow when lawmakers raided the program and then only partially reimbursed it. For the past four years, amid budget shortfalls, the Legislature has amended state law to excuse itself from annual payments.

More than 1,540 schools have applied for emergency repair funding, and more than 1,150 have received at least some money. Many are waiting for more funding, which is awarded in the order that applications are received, while others have received nothing.

The State Allocation Board – which holds the purse strings for state bonds and other funds for school construction and maintenance – already has approved more than 1,400 applications from 708 schools that, when funded, will nearly exhaust the $800 million program.

“You have a program in which all of the funds are essentially spoken for,” the ACLU’s Allen said. “It removes motivation for anybody else to have a stake in it.”

Balancing the budget has required lawmakers to make difficult decisions and deep cuts to many state programs, said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, who leads the Assembly Education Committee and sits on the State Allocation Board.

“Our approach with the budget has been, well, we need to take care of our most vulnerable … and particularly our poor children first and foremost, and I think that’s what we’ve tried to do,” she said. “That’s taken precedent over perhaps the facilities issue.”

Funds in high demand

Yet the need for emergency repair money remains.

On top of the projects in line for funding, the allocation board’s staff, the Office of Public School Construction, has received applications from 769 schools requesting about $357.7 million – exceeding the $800 million the program is required to pay.

Funding was in such high demand that the program stopped accepting applications in December 2010. Its application backlog has not been processed in three and a half years.

“They’re just sitting there,” said Adrian Felseghi, the Emergency Repair Program’s project manager and lone staffer. Without money from the state, Felseghi has nothing to send to approved projects, no reason to process applications that exceed the settlement’s pot of funds.

Felseghi is all that’s left of a five-person team that handled the program a few years ago. Because emergency repair projects are in a holding pattern, he spends half his time on the program – he reviews other school construction applications the rest of the time.

“We’ve been still talking to districts, and many of them are still waiting for the money, which is really sad because if this was an emergency four years ago, now it’s really bad,” he said.

As school districts continue to wait on state funds, initial needs have grown more severe and expensive. In some cases, the cost of waiting goes beyond deteriorating buildings.

Moreno Valley Unified closed off a portable classroom at Edgemont Elementary School after mold and water saturated its walls and ceiling and seeped beneath its floors. As a result, Edgemont does not have enough classrooms to serve students, and the district must bus children elsewhere. This past year, 18 kindergartners who would have used the portable were sent to two other schools.

Carlos Puma/California Watch Sergio San Martin is the director of facilities planning at Moreno Valley Unified School District. For more than four years, the district has been waiting for more than $75 million to make repairs at its lowest-performing schools.

“If we had that portable available, those 18 kids, they would have stayed at the site,” said Sergio San Martin, director of the district’s facilities planning division.

The portable remains on campus, unused, because the district cannot afford to remove and replace it without emergency repair funding.

No more time to wait

Other needs have been so acute that districts stopped waiting.

The Santa Ana Unified School District is more fortunate than most districts because it has a flexible bond that’s paid for immediate needs, said Joe Dixon, the district’s assistant superintendent of facilities and governmental relations. The district has spent more than $26.8 million of its $200 million construction bond, Measure G, on grants approved for Emergency Repair Program funding.

Using borrowed money, the school replaced the parking lot atop Century High School’s 23-year-old classrooms, where for years water sloshed beneath parked cars and leaked through the ceilings below.

Over the summer in 2009, the district jackhammered away the lot’s 6 inches of concrete, scraped off the roof’s tar membrane and blasted the surface smooth. It installed new insulation, laid down a new membrane and poured new pavement.

But the district’s bond won’t cover the $47 million remaining in emergency repair projects on top of the work for which it was intended.

“Without that (emergency repair) money, we’re not going to be able to complete projects we told the community we’d do,” Dixon said. “We have a good excuse, but no one wants excuses. Our excuse is the state.”

Squeezed by state budget

Applications trickled in during the Emergency Repair Program’s first two years, primarily because it paid only in reimbursements and required districts to come up with large sums up front. Demand was so low that the Legislature and Schwarzenegger grabbed back $250 million a year later to help balance the state education budget.

The program ended the 2007-08 fiscal year $50 million shorter than it began. The state approved $101 million for the program the following year, but to date has paid only half that amount.

After a 2007 amendment to state law allowed districts to receive grants, the Emergency Repair Program was flooded with applications. Then the recession hit, and the state budget crashed.

With schools strapped for cash, the Legislature three years ago temporarily lifted spending restrictions on billions of dollars of earmarked programs. The reprieve means that instead of spending money on, say, deferred maintenance and returning unused funds to the state, districts now may use that money on any educational purpose.

The Emergency Repair Program relies on that leftover education money, and that fund has increasingly dwindled. The program also has been sidelined as other education programs clamor for funds.

“It’s an extremely dire budget environment where we’re trying to argue for something people feel, well, we can kind of punt this for a little bit,” said Allen of the ACLU.

Even Brownley, who has been an outspoken supporter of the Emergency Repair Program, questioned the urgency of projects awaiting state funds.

“Obviously, if there’s a leaking roof and it’s leaking into the classroom, I consider that an emergency,” she said. “If it’s a roof repair because in two years from now we might have a leak, and therefore we might have to address the roof issue, then in my mind, given the scheme of things, that may not be the highest priority.”

Gov. Jerry Brown proposed devoting a little less than $12.3 million to the Emergency Repair Program in this fiscal year. But, as it did in years past, the Legislature eliminated the funding.

Allen is pushing for the Emergency Repair Program to become a slice of the state’s annual budget so that it’s insulated from competition for leftover education dollars. At the time of the settlement, no one anticipated that funding for the program could dry up, he said.

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Without legislative commitment for annual funding or without returning to court to amend the Williams settlement, the Emergency Repair Program “ain’t going to win,” said Jackie Goldberg, a former state assemblywoman from Los Angeles who wrote the bill that expanded the program to include grant funding.

“Just like deferred maintenance doesn’t win, like textbooks never win – because they’re not people. We don’t lay them off,” she said. “What moves the Legislature is people, and if I were there, it’d move me, too. I’d pick people over things every time.”

Allen declined to say whether the ACLU would take the state back to court. Still, he said, “I do think that we’ve reached and gone past the point of exasperation with it. … Ultimately, we’re hopeful there will be a legislative solution.”

Unlike the loss of a teacher or an increase in class size, a bad heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system is obscure and somewhat intangible. While neglecting the system could cost more in the long run, cut into a school’s budget for hiring teachers or worsen air quality, Allen said that unless schools have visible hazards like mushrooms growing out of classroom floors – an actual problem he has seen at a school ­– it “really is very hard to capture the attention.”

Carlos Puma/California Watch Pipes of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at Moreno Valley High are deteriorating. The school is waiting on a nearly $6 million emergency repair grant.

That’s the case with an old, temperamental heating and air-conditioning system at Moreno Valley High School. The two-pipe chiller system allows the school to either heat up or cool down ­– it can’t do both – so it’s difficult to regulate classroom temperatures. Teachers resort to propping open doors to let out stuffy air from classrooms that dip into the mid-60s in the winter and climb into the low 80s in the spring, said San Martin of Moreno Valley Unified.

Until the school receives its nearly $6 million emergency repair grant to replace the system and bring in 20 to 30 portables to temporarily relocate classes during construction, students and teachers will continue to shiver in the mornings and sweat in the afternoons.

“We get complaints from the school site and so forth. But what else can we do?” San Martin said. “There’s no other source of funding to move forward with it.”

Filed under: K–12, Money & Politics

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