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California’s K-12 School Facilities in Crisis

Next Generation has written extensively on school facility conditions in California over the past year, particularly with an eye towards energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality. We made the case early and often that new funds from Proposition 39 should be focused on schools, not only because of the unique benefits that investment promises, but because of the vast and ever-growing needs of schools.

California operates more than 10,000 schools serving over 6 million students annually, or one in eight k-12 students nationwide. Our facilities are aging—at least 70 percent are over 25 years old, and 30 percent are more than 50 years old—becoming increasingly energy inefficient, and in many cases hampering student health and learning.  Prop 39 will begin to address these conditions by providing new funding for efficiency improvements and modernization of aging or malfunctioning equipment.

But the challenges facing California’s school facilities go well beyond the scope of Prop 39, as a recent article from SI&A Cabinet Report makes clear. Funding for facilities maintenance has been severely reduced or diverted to meet other budgetary needs since the financial downturn, and the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in this year’s budget may add to the challenge.

In 2009, state legislators eased a requirement under the School Facilities Program, California’s state-local partnership to fund school facilities, that local educational agencies spend at least 3% of their annual operational budgets on facilities maintenance.

This change was made permanent under the LCFF, consistent with the formula’s goal of reducing state funding mandates to provide more flexibility for administrators at the local level.

Under the LCFF, local educational agencies are required to submit an accountability plan to the state, which outlines their plan to provide safe, clean and adequate facilities, as well as adequate educational services. But those agencies are entering uncharted territory as they await new spending guidelines from the Department of Education, and already have vast deferred maintenance needs.

California has a constitutional obligation to provide “safe, secure and peaceful” school facilities for all students, as well as a mandate under Williams v. California to ensure those facilities are clean, adequately supplied with instructional materials, and in “good repair.” While it is yet unclear what effect the Local Control Funding Formula will have on school facility upkeep, it is clear that California is already falling short of its commitments to maintaining school facilities.

As we wrote recently, California has yet to fulfill its obligations under the 2004 settlement in Williams. Hundreds of schools in the Emergency Repair Program are still waiting for funding for emergency repairs, and the State has not allocated new funding for that program since 2006.

School facilities advocates are already gearing up to push for a statewide bond initiative in 2014, which would undoubtedly offer short-term relief. But the current model of state and local bond financing has resulted in significant disparities in access to and distribution of state resources for facilities construction and modernization. Perhaps it’s time, as Governor Brown noted in his budget, to fundamentally reconsider the way school facilities are funded. 

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