PD Editorial: Yes on Prop 51: A boost for public schools

California has about 6.2 million students in public schools - and few responsibilities are larger than preparing them for college and careers.

Most of the money appropriated for public education goes into the classroom: salaries for teachers, books and other materials for students. Too often, there isn’t enough left to properly maintain the state’s 10,000 public schools, some of which are decades old.

Proposition 51, a $9 billion bond act on the Nov. 8 ballot, is an opportunity to improve facilities for students in public schools and community colleges, including those here in Sonoma County.

The state typically shares building and rehab costs with local districts, but it has been 10 years since voters approved a state school bond, and the fund is running dry. When the state Legislature failed to put a bond on the ballot, a coalition of building interests and education organizations qualified Proposition 51 as an initiative.

Tom Torlakson, the state’s school superintendent, said the alternative to Proposition 51 is diverting “precious funding away from teaching and learning activities,” and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce says the initiative is critical to completing local school projects.

But there’s a credible case for opposing Proposition 51.

A primary objection of opponents is that Proposition 51 earmarks half the money for building new schools in an era of flat or declining enrollment in California. It would have made sense to earmark more money for rehabilitating and upgrading existing facilities.

Another concern is adding to the state’s debt load. California already is paying off more than $85 billion in outstanding bonds, including past school bonds, with another $30 billion in voter-authorized bonds that have yet to be sold.

The state presently spends about $6 billion annually on principal and interest, and the nonpartisan legislative analyst said approval of Proposition 51 would add debt service costs of about $500 million a year for 35 years. These are fixed expenses that cannot be trimmed or postponed during an economic downturn.

But those costs must be weighed against an undisputed need to address deferred maintenance in public schools, upgrade classrooms and install state-of-the-art technology that will benefit students and, ultimately, California’s economy.

Timing also is a consideration. Interest rates remain near record lows, making it less expensive to borrow money for major capital investments.

Moreover, the state’s credit rating is good, and debt service, though substantial, presently accounts for about 5 percent of general fund spending.

Here in Sonoma County, at least five school districts and Santa Rosa Junior College have construction projects in progress after voters approved local school bonds in recent elections. Six local school districts have bond measures totaling $340 million on the Nov. 8 ballot.

State bond money could stretch those local dollars further.

If Proposition 51 passes, Santa Rosa Junior College has been promised $34 million for a new science building, its first in 50 years. SRJC has applied for $22.6 million for two other projects.

The state Allocation Board has approved six projects totaling $19 million in K-12 schools in Santa Rosa, Windsor and elsewhere in Sonoma County that could receive money from Proposition 51. Five other local districts have funding applications pending.

Local voters have been generous with public schools, and there would be opportunities to leverage those dollars if the state’s fund for construction and repairs is recharged. With that in mind, The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Proposition 51.

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