Education leaders call for modernization

The California Legislature needs to devise a clear plan for modernizing and replacing the state's aging schools or it will be harder to persuade voters to approve funding for K-12 construction, the state schools chief said Wednesday.

"Education is transforming and our buildings where learning takes place need to transform with it," state Superintendent Tom Torlakson said at a news conference at Oakland's nearly completed La Escuelita Education Center. "When (voters) have a chance to see a well-thought-out bond measure in the state or locally, they say yes to our future, they say yes to kids."

Torlakson and Oakland Unified School District officials were on hand to unveil a new report from UC Berkeley, which called for an increased focus on school infrastructure at a time when shrinking education funding from the state has put schools in a "fiscal emergency."

"We can't afford to not be strategic," said Jeff Vincent, the deputy director of UC Berkeley's Center for Cities & Schools and lead author of the report. "At the state level, the funds for contributing to K-12 facilities are at their end."

Since the Legislature created California's School Facilities Program in 1998, about $118 billion in state and local funding has gone toward improving school infrastructure. The report estimates that about the same amount is needed in the next 10 years to continue to update and maintain schools.

About $35.4 billion of the money spent since 1998 has come from four bond measures approved by state voters. Torlakson said he hopes voters will approve more money at the local level or through a state bond measure in 2014, but the economic climate has changed since the last $7.33 billion bond was approved in 2006.

"The down economy and the concerns about rising debt service costs to the state's general fund make a new bond's success at the polls less predictable," the report stated.

Oakland will vote on a bond measure in November that puts $475 million toward localschool facilities construction, and Superintendent Tony Smith said he believed the community will support the bond.

"We have to guarantee that this district is committed to creating positive learning environments," he said. The report also found that the state hasn't been collecting data needed to make decisions about which schools need modernization funds the most. It stated that if Gov. Jerry Brown were to order the 100 schools in the worst condition to be repaired, there would be no way of knowing which schools to target.

"We don't collect information or make it available to the public to understand what the true needs are," Vincent said.

A few children set to start at the new La Escuelita Education Center in the fall were taken on a tour of the $81.5 million project, which Oakland Board of Education President Jody London said was made possible in part because Oakland was the first district to take state matching funds for green-verified construction under the 2006 state bond.

The 5.7-acre site features cooling towers, oversize ceiling fans and a thermal mass wall system that architects said will eliminate the need for air conditioning.

Torlakson said making schools more environmentally efficient will save money and result in more academic opportunities for students.

"We're losing money that could go to the classrooms, computers and cool field trips and science labs because it's going into energy waste," he said.

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