Summer 2006 Newsletter

Sen. Torlakson Sponsors State Legislation to Encourage and Facilitate Joint-Use Schools

Tom TorlaksonDespite all the arguments in favor of joint use, state law does not always facilitate, or even allow, multiple jurisdictions to collaborate and leverage their funds and assets in a way that would save money and benefit communities and families. But State Senator Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) is trying to change that. Committed to delivering public services as efficiently as possible, he has introduced SB 1677, which would encourage joint use in a variety of ways. SB 1677 would re-define the sorts of facilities that can be used for education, and it would provide more flexible funding for joint use projects, especially those that use California's billions of dollars in education bond monies. NSBN was pleased to speak with Sen. Torlakson about this crucial legislation.

You have authored SB 1677, which would reform the allocation of joint use funds in the state's school facilities bonds. What's the problem? What is the bill's objective?

The public wants public agencies to cooperate, and they don't care who runs it or how they put the facility or program together. The goal of the bill is to use the bond money more flexibly to get money out into the community faster.

I was disappointed in the middle of an education committee hearing when I learned about the difficulties local partners were having when they tried to work with the state program. The bill would make it easier to form joint-use partnerships. For instance, why does it have to be a facility located on a K-12 campus? If it serves the learning needs of our children and it meets state curriculum standards, then why not allow a science and technology center or a lab in the community or on a community college campus to be a joint-use project? The same with performing arts centers, parks and rec centers, technical education centers – these kinds of partnerships make a lot of sense, and they don't have to be located on the school campus.

The other key component of the bill is to define the local match more flexibly. Currently, each of the local partners has to come up with 25 percent, and we're saying that's an arbitrary number. If the local partners find a way to contribute more, then let them contribute 40 percent of the total and another partner can contribute 10, and then you get your 50 percent match anyway. So we're just saying that local collaboration and cooperation should be given more freedom to define its own partnership balance.

Given the generosity of the voters of the state, who have approved more than $35 billion of state money and a similar amount of local bonds, what motivated you to hone in on this particular school bond reform?

Local school administrators were frustrated by the rigid and illogical guidelines of the current program. I was frustrated to see that money was not being spent even though it was available in the last bond issue. Taxpayers don't like to see idle money when it could be doing good for the community.

The bill includes references to career technical centers and laboratories, childcare facilities, libraries, etc. Can you elaborate on the breadth of opportunities that this reform might allow?

It provides for greater variety. I've seen joint use work so effectively in two libraries that are located on a middle school and a high school campus. I got them started when I was on the Board of Supervisors when I realized that we didn't have money to build a $10 million brand-new community library, but we had a growing population and no real library. So rather than let the school library sit idle at 3:30 p.m. every day, we now have a county library providing library hours into the evening, literacy programs, weekend meetings, and access to books and computers that was blocked off when it was only a school resource under the jurisdiction of the school district.

I saw how those two examples benefited the community, and as we talked to high school and middle school administrators, we saw that cultural and historic education centers, recreation centers, and performing arts centers would have great value for field trips and classes' off-campus for our students. And there is growing recognition of the need for variety, particularly in the technical and science areas, that our schools can't build on each and every campus. They can't get these special labs or interpretive centers, but we could have more wonderful regional centers that are great assets for field trips and classes on the weekends.

Will your school facilities joint-use bill enable the early childhood education communities of California—especially L.A. County, with its commitment to universal access to pre-K for 4-year-olds—to use some of this joint-use money to link their pre-Ks to primary and elementary school facilities and playgrounds?

My understanding is that this joint use would allow those kinds of collaborations. Community colleges that do early childhood development can partner with elementary schools to both provide those services and also give students the opportunity to learn and move towards degrees in early childhood education. I think this absolutely provides that opportunity. Right now if the childcare center is located at the community college, it couldn't be considered for joint-use funding because it is on the community college campus. With these more flexible rules, those kinds of partnerships can develop.

NSBN, USC, UCLA, the California Endowment and others recently held a conference in Los Angeles entitled "Unhealthy by Design?" on the relationship between the built environment and community health. How will your bill promote public health through joint use?

The bill will provide more opportunities to design a built environment that is healthier, that is going to allow for walkable connections and recreation. There are great examples throughout the state of school districts and local park and rec districts coming together to provide joint use in after-school hours. But I believe this reform will broaden those opportunities.

The idea fundamentally is that schools can and should be community centers and that as we invest in the school we can invest in other facilities close by or on campus that will offer a benefit and be seen as community assets, not separate real estate owned by a school district or controlled by a city.

In late June the Center for Civic Partnerships and Joan Twiss are hosting a small group of local officials, housing developers, and transportation experts from Northern and Southern California on how to connect housing, transportation, and community health. What tools or revenue streams do local governments have to connect those dots and create healthy, livable communities?

The bond package presents a historic opportunity to do things better. The Transportation and Housing Committee was Senator Perata's innovation to get out of the old boxes and connect two key challenges in California: the transportation crisis and the housing crisis. I chaired that committee for a year and conducted 23 hearings around the state listening to businesspeople, parents, labor, and we were impressed with the uniform desire to do things differently and better to work towards healthier communities. The sprawl that has resulted in longer commutes, more parents trapped in traffic, more air pollution, more childcare costs, more afterschool program need, air pollution, lung disease. We can turn that around.

For instance, in the housing bond we have $850 million of urban infill incentives. A city that does its fair share of regional housing and meets targets we will establish in trailer legislation can receive those funds as rewards for putting more housing close to transit and job centers. And then there will be some discretionary money that could be spent on joint use facilities, which would benefit both schools and the community. Also, $200 million of that $850 million will be dedicated to parks, open space, and recreation, which, again, has great opportunity to be programmed in a vestment approach that will yield healthier communities and schools as partners with the city. The education bond has $29 million more in it for joint use. So in addition to changing the rules in the bill we discussed earlier, we also want to supply some real money to help that happen.

The other thing out of a $20 billion transportation bond, about $4.5 billion will go to transit. That's a huge commitment to new opportunities in urban infill and to connect housing and jobs, which will result in healthier communities. The longer commutes are unhealthy not just because you're sitting and you're not exercising, but because it's stressful, and the chances of an accident or an injury every time you drive a 70-mile round-trip commute are real. They cost us a lot of lost lives and injuries. So the bond package offers tremendous opportunity to go in a more positive direction as California moves forward.

With the failure of Prop 82, what strategy, if any, will proponents of universal pre-K now pursue?

In my discussions with Sen. Perata and my own assessment of 82, it was just too big of an investment and not targeted well enough to the higher-need communities. I believe we will come forward with a plan that will be better targeted and hopefully find the administration and Legislature working together so that preschool will be part of a broader package of additional funding for schools.

I personally think that we need to do something in terms of new revenues for education in general, and we need to take care of that before we start a whole new program. Certainly, targeting to lower decile schools and populations that cannot afford preschool on their own makes a lot of sense. We will see a higher return on our investment by targeting the neediest of California's children than taking the universal approach that was outlined in Prop 82.

How could the state and the Legislature encourage more holistic infrastructure planning in our communities? How do you make it easier for neighborhoods desperate for safe access to good school facilities, recreation, pre- and after-school programs, adult education and health care overcome the silo planning of most capital and facility expenditures by schools and other public entities?

That isn't easy, because we have these separate boxes of policy work. But we can build bridges and we can get out of the boxes. I just think it takes creative efforts and good examples. One thing I heard recently in the Education Committee was that school districts were having great difficulty working with cities to plan their sites and the accompanying traffic, sidewalks, and infrastructure. I went forward with another bill that will allow for master EIRs and more collaboration between the cities and the school districts for them to get their sites approved at the local level.

Beyond doing bills, I'm working on facilitating a committee of the League of Cities to sit down with a committee from the administrators and school boards associations to look at other dimensions of where they can cooperate in the planning process to make it less confrontational. That kind of collaboration is healthy, and we just need support from community groups who see the rationale behind it. The taxpayers certainly don't want to see us getting bogged down over jurisdictional lines.