California schools boosted by voters, lawmakers

5:53 PM, Dec 4, 2012   |    comments
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It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas for the state's public schools, after years of what some would call lumps of coal in the stocking.

On top of generally upbeat economic forecasts that could boost the state budget's bottom line are the billions of dollars that two November ballot measures will set aside for education... and billions more under one of the first bills introduced in the new session of the Legislature.

"Upgrading California schools will yield the greatest value for this investment," said state Sen. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, on Tuesday in unveiling his bill to use Proposition 39 dollars for energy efficiency projects in as many as half of the state's 10,000 schools.

"We will save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save school districts money to put back into the classroom."

The bill, SB 39, places an early and politically important marker on the roughly $550 million annual allotment of new Prop 39 corporate tax revenues designated for clean or efficient energy projects. In fact, some at the Capitol believe the entire energy earmark could ultimately end up with schools, rather than being spent on smaller clean/alternative energy projects.

The proposal has the support of Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and received its press christening at a joint elementary and high school campus in Steinberg's hometown. In a tour of West Campus High School for legislators, principal Greg Thomas said there's currently no money for renovating heating and air systems to make them more efficient.

District officials say the school spent almost $122,000 last fiscal year on energy costs.

"The [SB 39] savings that will go from reducing energy costs in schools will go right back to the classroom," said Steinberg at Tuesday's event. "To hire more teachers. To hire more classified employees. To bring back some of the extracurriculars."

Keep in mind that regardless of the bill's fate, public schools will benefit from Prop 39. That's because the new corporate tax revenues count towards the state's constitutional guarantee for school funding, 1988's Proposition 98 - in other words, a new mandated boost to education.

That's on top of the billions of new school dollars that will be generated by Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30. And even more good news for schools this week, as state finance officials announced a payment this month of a $1.8 billion K-12 cash deferral - one month ahead of schedule.

"It does send a great signal that it's time now to add back school days, and put teachers back in the classroom," says Dennis Meyers of the California School Boards Association. "It's a good time right now."

As such, the focus in the new year at the state Capitol may switch from school funding to school funding rules. Gov. Brown is expected to resume his push -- set aside in 2012 -- to change the state mandates for how school dollars are distributed, moving towards his preference for a formula weighted toward low-income and English learner students.

That push will far more contentious than the current -- and simpler -- excitement over giving all schools more cash.


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