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Prop.39 may jump-start facility investments  

Fall 2013

While many of the details regarding implementation of Proposition 39 remain to be worked out, two questions fundamentally drive the conversation:

  1. How will the state distribute Proposition 39 funding to individual schools, districts and county offices of education?
  2. And how will the recipients spend the money?

As part of his 2013-14 budget, Gov. Jerry Brown initially proposed distributing Proposition 39 funds solely on average daily attendance, or ADA. Critics complained that a strict ADA-based allocation underserved smaller, poorer school districts that would qualify for sums too small to effect significant improvement or change.

As a result, the distribution of funds approved in the state budget establishes minimum disbursements, regardless of ADA. It also sets aside additional funds and resources for local educational agencies that can qualify. The final numbers were based on a joint study by the California Department of Education, California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission, which recommended this distribution of initial funding, assuming an estimated $413 million in revenue:

The state’s two largest school districts—Los Angeles Unified (662,000 students) and San Diego Unified (132,000 students)—would receive noticeably larger allocations: $35,170,174 and $7,149,064, respectively.

This distribution is a step in the right direction in the view of Kate Gordon, vice president and director of energy and climate for the Center for the Next Generation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. She warns, though, that it is not enough—on any scale.

“Our school facility conditions vary dramatically,” Gordon points out. “We don’t know exactly how much because there turns out to be no statewide inventory of school buildings (unlike 22 other states) but we do know that 70 percent of the state’s school buildings are more than 25 years old and that one-third of classes in the state are held in portable or modular buildings, which are desperately in need of maintenance and energy retrofitting, and often contain harmful toxins.”

Gordon says research conducted by Next Generation has found that more than 200 school districts in the state (one-fifth of the total) have not passed a single local bond in 30 years. Local and state bonds are the primary funding source for facilities improvements.

“Those districts, mostly in the rural parts of the state, have not been able to invest significantly in their buildings in decades,” she says.

Other sources of energy-related assistance have historically been limited and comparatively small. That Public Education Facilities Bond Act, for example, has just $100 million in a revolving fund for those low-interest loans for energy conservation, according to Julia Zuckerman and Jeff Deason of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Climate Policy Initiative. The loan program lent $8 million to qualifying districts last year.

That might seem a sizeable sum until you consider that energy projects can be quite costly, especially whole-building retrofits, which typically reach into the millions of dollars. Gordon, at Next Generation, says Proposition 39’s minimum payment of just $15,000 “is hardly enough to do even a basic lighting retrofit.”

To remedy that, smaller districts will be able to combine two years’ funding into one lump sum. Perhaps more important, advocates hope schools will leverage Proposition 39 funding as seed money, using it to attract additional investments in the form of grants or private investment.

“I think that will be a priority,” says Ferrara, whose organization will spend a lot of time talking with schools about what they can do, should do—and what to avoid. “Schools are ready to take on the challenge,” she says. “There are some guidelines, but also a lot of flexibility. Schools will need to prioritize based on a number of factors, some of which we don’t yet know.”

—Scott LaFee