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Local Republicans split over school bonds

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, October 21, 1998

I
t isn't often that our local legislators disagree on a ballot measure. They're all Republicans, and Assembly Republicans in particular tend to stick together.

Tom McClintock bucks the pack, when necessary, on issues involving money. McClintock, who represents Stevenson Ranch, Castaic and other areas west of Interstate 5, has built a career on his reputation as the consummate tax fighter. This year he went so far as to co-author the official argument against Proposition 1A, a $9.2 billion school construction bond measure that would cost the state about $15.2 billion to repay over 25 years.

George Runner, who represents the bulk of this valley and the barren one to the north, shares many of McClintock's concerns. But while McClintock has been on the front lines battling the bond measure, Runner has taken a lower-key approach in articulating its advantages.

"It's a fair compromise for getting schools built in California," Runner said Monday. The first-term Assemblyman said much the same thing when he addressed an audience in McClintock country — Stevenson Ranch — two weeks ago.

"It shares the responsibility between the state, developers and local communities," he said. "It also brings down the cost of building schools by about 20 percent."

Runner said the measure lowers costs by letting school districts negotiate with architects, who currently receive a fixed percentage of the building price. It expedites school construction, eliminates duplicative insurance costs and creates other savings. It also preserves the two-thirds vote requirement for passing local school bonds.

"With all those (things) considered, it made it worth it to me to move it on to voters to see how they felt," he said. The Assembly voted 69-9 (Senate, 32-6) to place the measure on the ballot.

Included would be $6.7 billion for K-12 schools and $2.5 billion for colleges. Of the K-12 money, $2.9 billion would go to new school construction, $2.1 billion to modernization, $1 billion to districts that can't afford matching funds and $700 million to class size reduction.

Controversy has surrounded the measure not so much because it increases California's debt burden — McClintock's anti-tax crusade doesn't seem to be well-financed — but because it caps developer fees at $1.93 per square foot of residential development and 31 cents per square foot of commercial and industrial development in certain cases. The state would match the developer fee contribution.

That might explain why the California Building Industry Association and California Chamber of Commerce support it, but it's an inaccurate picture of what the measure really does, Runner says.

Prop. 1A would cap developer fees unless a school district can meet two of four criteria: it has year-round schools; 20 percent portables; a stretched bonding capacity; or a failed attempt at passing a local bond measure in the last five years. Most SCV school districts meet at least two of those criteria, Runner said.

"The developer fee cap is not a realistic (issue)," he said. "There really isn't one in the Santa Clarita Valley. In most growing areas it doesn't apply. Under Prop. 1A, the developer pays half and the state pays half. And if the state doesn't have the money, the developer pays 100 percent."

Where the debate gets dicey, Runner said, is that some SCV school districts have convinced developers to commit up to $9 per square foot. The formula used under Prop 1A is based on the construction of an average school in the average district.

"What it does get around (for developers) is when a district wants to build a nicer school with high-priced amenities like a swimming pool," he said. School districts could no longer hold up a housing development in such situations, but they would be free to negotiate for higher fees if they could convince the developer that a nicer school would help home sales. Either that, Runner said, or the district could use general fund money, Mello Roos fees or pass a local bond to finance the upgrades.

"Ultimately there is a lot in 1A that parallels the deals that have already been done between school districts and developers in the Santa Clarita Valley," he said.

If Runner thinks 1A is a "fair compromise," how would he really like to build schools?

"My preference would be that we would invest $1 billion a year in schools on an ongoing basis," he said. "We'd use real money, money the state already has in the general fund. Actually I had a bill (to do that) this year, but it was killed by the Democrats. They chose to expand health and welfare programs instead."

So while McClintock waves the anti-tax banner high and pure, a pragmatic Runner, faced with the very real prospect of no money for new schools in the foreseeable future, is holding his nose and joining a long list of teachers and Democrats — and temperate Assembly Republicans — who see the benefits of Prop. 1A.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's special sections editor.

    ©1999 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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