Hundreds of California Schools Wait Years for Emergency Repairs
Governor Brown has made equitable school funding a top priority, and this year’s budget deal – which provides for implementation of both the Local Control Funding Formula and Proposition 39 – represents a major step towards improving the quality of education for millions of California’s students.
Unfortunately, the budget being signed into law today also defers aid to some of the state’s most disadvantaged schools. Lawmakers rejected a proposal earlier this month to send a portion of the first-year funds from Proposition 39 to energy projects at schools in the State’s Emergency Repair Program (ERP), effectively ensuring that program would go yet another year without funding.
The ERP is a product of Eliezer Williams v. State of California, a landmark civil rights case brought in 2000 by the ACLU, Public Advocates, and other groups, alleging that California had failed to provide safe and decent school facilities and adequate learning supplies for thousands of students.
When the Williams case was settled in 2004, nearly $1 billion in new funding was set aside for schools in the bottom three tiers of the State’s Academic Performance Index. The vast majority of the settlement was allocated for facility improvements as part of the ERP to address conditions that presented immediate health and safety risks to students – emergency repairs – as the title of the program makes clear.
But according to Brooks Allen, an attorney for ACLU of Southern California overseeing the settlement, the Legislature has not provided a single new dollar for the program since 2006.
“I can assure you that there is no money in the pipeline for the ERP projects on the unfunded approval list” wrote Allen, in an email to Next Generation Staff when we first launched our investigation in February. Nearly nine years after the settlement, more than half of the promised funding remains undistributed.
Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown have both proposed funding for the ERP in each of their annual budgets, but without fail, that funding has been eliminated by legislators in budget negotiations.
But even those Governors’ proposals have paled in comparison to the vast needs of schools on the list. This year, Governor Brown’s budget proposed $ 9.7 million to fund ERP projects. Unsurprisingly, that money didn’t make it into the final budget. But even if it had, at that rate, it would take almost half a century to fully fund the program.
To borrow from the Governor himself, “That’s not a burp. It’s barely a fart.”
Missed Opportunity to Shave Costs, Improve Student Health, Learning
Last December, Next Generation published a white paper making the case for investments in energy efficiency in schools under Proposition 39. Studies consistently show that the environments in which our students learn are critical to their health and academic performance, and that improving those environments yields steady returns that can then be reinvested in education.
Needless to say, we were very disheartened to see the ERP excluded from Prop 39 negotiations. The final bill to implement the proposition was a strong one – with provisions that ensure accountability, prioritize disadvantaged students, create a small revolving loan fund, and set stringent workforce standards – but it would have been even stronger had it addressed the schools arguably with the greatest needs.
In a recent editorial, Silicon Valley Mercury News called the program a “perfect fit for Prop 39,” because many of the projects on the program’s workload list are energy-related. Our analysis shows that up to $193 million in projects on that list qualify as energy-related or, at a minimum, indirectly affect school energy performance.
These schools also tend to fall in low-income urban areas in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Central Valley, and stand to gain substantially from improved indoor air quality. Of those energy-related projects on the ERP workload list, approximately $43 million dollars is needed to repair or replace inoperable heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems alone.
A recent study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) found that indoor air quality in surveyed public elementary schools in California does not meet basic state standards, and many schools on the ERP workload list undoubtedly fall far well below statewide minimum air quality standards.
The researchers found that 95 percent of the air-conditioned schoolrooms in the Central Valley failed to meet the state’s minimum ventilation rate. The same study found that California schools lose at least $33 million annually due to asthma-related absences, and the cost for additional instruction would only amount to about $4 million.
All told, the most recent publicly-available data show that there are currently 1,460 approved but unfunded applications for 4,759 projects totaling roughly $460 million in cost. These projects have already been vetted by the Office of Public School Construction, but have languished in the doldrums of austerity budgets since the financial crisis began.
Many of these schools have been forced to borrow from operational budgets to address their emergency repairs, creating budget shortfalls elsewhere that have yet to be reimbursed, further restricting their ability to provide quality educational services.
While funding from Prop 39 would not have addressed all of the facility needs in the program, Williams advocates like ACLU’s Allen saw it as a rare opportunity to win long-awaited funding amid otherwise bleak prospects. “Once funds are available, the money can go out the door and start making an immediate difference,” Allen wrote.
Given the likelihood that State revenues will surpass the Governor’s projections this year, lawmakers should take this opportunity to make good on the State’s commitment to provide decent, safe, and functioning facilities for students, faculty, and staff – and they should start with the Emergency Repair Program.
Follow James Barba on Twitter: @James_Barba