School-bond funding distribution blasted: Lawsuit contends inner-city districts are shortchanged

By Dan Smith
Bee Deputy Capitol Bureau Chief
Sacramento Bee
(Published March 30, 2000)

California's process of distributing bond money for school construction has illegally shortchanged inner-city districts that serve primarily low-income and minority children, resulting in a gaping educational disparity in the state, a lawsuit to be filed today will allege.

The suit, to be filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, charges that methods used by the State Allocation Board and the Office of Public School Construction are unfair, arbitrary, complicated, ever-changing and "extremely vulnerable to lobbying and cronyism."

Moreover, the suit charges that the process violates the constitutional guarantee that pupils be afforded equal educational opportunity and state laws governing the distribution of bond money. It asks the court to order the allocation board to suspend distribution of money from Proposition 1A, the $9.2 billion school bond measure voters approved in 1998, until the board develops a "rational, need-based" distribution system that "avoids gross disparities in expenditures and educational quality."

State officials with the school construction office and the allocation board were reluctant to comment until they review the lawsuit. "But we think the system that is in place is fundamentally fair," said Sandy Harrison, spokesman for state Finance Director Tim Gage, chair of the allocation board. "It funds the districts that apply and that can show a need."

To be filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of schoolchildren, parents and community groups there, the suit says districts in Sacramento, Fresno and San Diego, among others, also have been hurt by the funding system.

Hardest hit, according to the suit, are 34 of California's approximately 1,000 school districts that collectively serve a student population that is primarily non-white and poor. Fast-growing districts in suburban and rural areas have received a disproportionate amount of money for new schools because of board allocation policies, while similar growth in poorer, urban districts "has typically been met by shoehorning more and more children into existing facilities that are manifestly inadequate," the suit alleges.

The suit contends the disparity has existed for more than a decade and has been exacerbated with the distribution of funds from Proposition 1A. Los Angeles Unified School District, with 14 percent of the entire state's fund eligibility under the system, should expect "hundreds of millions of dollars" of the $6.7 billion Proposition 1A dedicated to K-12 construction, the suit contends. But the district is likely to receive only $25 million, according to the suit. The lack of construction funds flowing to Los Angeles, the suit alleges, has created overcrowded conditions, forced the district to increase busing, install 4,500 portable classrooms and vastly expand the number of pupils on multitrack school years, all of which has resulted in "inferior" schooling and high dropout rates.

The suit details hardships experienced by a variety of the children listed as plaintiffs. Kindergartner Andres Daza attends a school existing solely of portable classrooms in a park, and must deal with the so-called "Concept 6" school year -- in school for four months, off for two, back in for four months and off for another two months, according to the suit.

"The continuation of such conditions throughout a child's school career robs him or her of the equal educational opportunity California's schoolchildren are guaranteed by the California Constitution," the suit says.