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Which CA schools need energy upgrades? Bond finance paints a picture

Last November California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 39, which closes a corporate tax loophole and directs $2.75 billion in revenues over five years to fund energy efficiency projects in public buildings. As implementation draws near, political and popular momentum is building to spend most or all of the revenue in California’s public schools.

As Next Generation argued in a December 2012 report, schools in general make good candidates for Prop 39 revenue: saving energy through efficiency retrofits can allow schools to redirect money from energy bills to educational supplies and teachers; facility improvements, especially improved thermal comfort, better light at desk level, or improved indoor air quality, can lead to improved learning outcomes for students; and choosing a single class of similar buildings for the Prop 39 program will make it easier to do consistent evaluation and ensure it is actually working for California taxpayers.

But even if legislators focus Prop 39 funds on schools, a huge question remains:  how to target these funds to those facilities that can save the most energy.  A school’s ability to save energy depends on how much energy it uses, the climate in which it operates, and on how old, well-maintained, and energy efficient its buildings are today.  In terms of building characteristics, California’s school facilities vary a lot. For example, some schools have been built or remodeled to meet high efficiency standards such as ENERGY STAR, or those established by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools.  Meanwhile, other schools are in need of the most basic repairs. In districts like Los Angeles Unified, with over 35,000 unresolved maintenance requests, budget cuts have put facilities upkeep on the back burner for years. In a similar story, hundreds of schools across the state have been waiting over eight years to receive emergency facilities funding. In the background, the majority of California’s public schools are probably somewhere between these high- and low-performance extremes.

We say they are “probably” because there’s no way to know for sure.  It turns out that California lacks a basic inventory on our public school facility conditions – something that 22 other states have, and that education advocates at institutions like the UC Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools have been requesting for years.  Without building information and energy data, it’s tough to figure out how exactly to focus Prop 39 dollars on those schools that will give the program the biggest energy savings bang for the buck.  

At Next Generation, we have been working with our allies in the energy and education communities to try to figure out how to paint a more robust picture of the state’s school facilities. We have focused our efforts on local bond elections, which may be a proxy for school facilities conditions. Local bond elections have always funded facilities, and according to a comprehensive report on California schools put out by the Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools, they have provided more than half of the revenue for school construction and modernization since 1998, when the state adopted its current local-state partnership. To gain eligibility for state facility funds through the state’s New Construction and Modernization programs, school districts must raise local revenue (most often in the form of bonds) to match state dollars.

In short, local bonds provide not only the majority of facilities funding in California, but the key to unlocking millions in state facilities funds as well. Our theory: without local bond revenue, major school facility improvements would be difficult to finance.

Which brings us to the key question: who’s raised the most and the least local bond money over the past few decades?  It’s a sobering story.  Our research shows that hundreds of school districts in California have not passed a single local bond measure since the mid-1980s, either because they have not held a bond election, or because voters have rejected local measures at the ballot (see map, right). Roughly 350,000 California students attended schools in these districts in the last school year.

Of course, there are also hundreds of schools that have passed bonds over the last 30 years. The story there is the immense variation across schools in terms of bond dollars raised per student. At the low end, a unified school district in Merced County has passed about $36 per student per year since 1983, and at the high end, an elementary school district in Santa Clara County has passed an average of nearly $9000 per student per year. It’s hard to believe the schools in these two districts have equivalent facility conditions and related energy use.

Our research leads to some important questions that are at the heart of Proposition 39 implementation.  If the goal of the proposition is to maximize energy savings, it seems clear that not every school stands to save the most.  How we identify which schools stand to save the most energy, and ensure that Prop 39 dollars are directed to those schools at a level that will actually make a difference, is critical to the long-term effectiveness of this program. 

Such questions about Prop 39 implementation come in the midst of two broader policy discussions. First, in his State of the State speech earlier this year, Governor Brown proposed to change the funding formula for public schools to give more to children who, for their future success, need it most. Inadvertently, Prop 39 created a moment to also look at school facility finance, the buildings children enter every day and how their conditions help or hinder learning.  Second, across the nation, public school facilities are in need of half a trillion dollars of investment, according to a new report  from the Center for Green Schools. If implemented and evaluated wisely, Prop 39 could provide a valuable model for energy efficiency and building improvements in public schools across the country.

To view additional maps, click here. All figures are based on Ed-Data.

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