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Prop 51 bond measure pits school needs against worries over state debt

California voters have a decision to make on the general election ballot: approve $9 billion in bonds for school and community college construction projects and modernization, or reject it to avoid adding to the state debt.

Voters appear split on the measure known as Proposition 51. The Public Policy Institute of California found in a September survey that 47 percent of likely voters polled support the measure while 43 percent oppose it. The proposition will need a simple majority to pass.

Third-grader Jade Rosa likely doesn't know anything about the forces aligning for and against Prop 51. She and her classmates do know that theirs is a portable classroom at Felton Elementary School in Lennox, just a few minutes from the Los Angeles International Airport.

During a recent visit, Jade had just finished a math test, and was taking a break to work on a coloring project.

"I’m drawing Seedot," she said. "It’s a Pokemon, he’s really cute."

All seems normal in Jade's classroom until you step outside and hear the roar of the jet engines overhead. Unlike other buildings on campus, these portables don't have sound protection and some of the noise filters into the classroom. 

Jade's classroom also doesn’t have any natural light. The windows have been blocked out.

"They are covered, there's like a board on the outside part that covers it. I'm not exactly sure how that was was made,"said Elizabeth Franco, Jade's teacher. "It's always been like that."

Franco said in her 14 years of teaching, she’s never had a classroom with a window. 

"It’s almost like, just that’s the way it is. I’ve never experienced anything else," Franco said.

Kent Taylor, superintendent of the Lennox School District of which Felton Elementary is a part, said the windows are blocked for security reasons, but it also serves as a way to dampen the airplane noise. 

The district doesn't have the funds to sound-proof the portable buildings, according to Taylor. The permanent classrooms are eligible for special funding that the temporary buildings don't qualify for. All of this creates an equity problem, he said. Some kids get to learn in quiet rooms, others don't. 

If approved, Prop 51 will authorize $9 billion in general obligation bonds for new construction and improvement projects at K-12 schools, community colleges and vocational and charter schools. For Taylor, that means replacing portable buildings with permanent ones and upgrading his district's aging school infrastructure. Several schools in the district are more than 50 years old. 

"So if we get another 10 million because of Prop 51, we’re so excited," he said as he talked over the plane noise. "It doesn’t meet all of our needs, but it certainly helps our students so much. So we’re encouraging the voters: please think about our kids."

The school's principal, Norma Martinez, said kids in more affluent communities don't have to deal with portables at their schools as frequently as those in less affluent areas.

"It's definitely a concern for me," she said. "I would prefer that all kids have equal access."

Prop 51 has an army of supporters — many with deep pockets, like well-known housing developers such as Brookfield, KB Home and Shea Homes.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is among the measure's backers. He's been appearing at events around California in support of the measure. Relying entirely on local districts for facility funding, according to Torlakson, takes away from money that can be spent directly on learning. 

"There's been a tradition of state partnership with local school districts that goes back decades, so the state has always been a partner," he said. "It's worked. The state should step up."

In all, more than $11 million has been raised in support of the bond measure. 

But the measure also has high-profile opposition, notably from California Gov. Jerry Brown.

"It’s a blunderbuss effort that promotes sprawl and squanders money that would be far better spent in low-income communities," the governor said, in a statement.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the state will pay about $17.6 billion to pay off principal and interest on the bonds or about $500 million annually for 35 years.

Several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, have recommended voters reject the measure, arguing in part that Prop 51 locks in rules for developers that don’t work.

G. Rick Marshall with the California Taxpayers Action Network helped write the arguments against the measure in the state’s voter information guide.

"All this does is add to the state debt," Marshall said. "And it brings a one-size-fits-all program to school districts, when you have local bond money the locals decide what to do with it."

If it passes, according to Marshall, developers will benefit. Prop 51 would prevent changes to the fee structure they pay when they build new housing developments that need schools, he said. 

Prop 51 opponents also argue that larger, more organized school districts will be first in line to dip into the pot since, unlike some smaller districts, they have the staff to speedily apply for the funds. 

Opponents like Marshall also want to see school districts use local sources of funding rather than new state bond money to build and improve schools.

"We think that by providing new construction money, you’re going to encourage schools to build buildings that they don’t need," he said.

Across the state, more than 100 school districts, including Lennox, have placed local bond measures on the November ballot. Many hope to raise matching funds to take advantage of Prop 51, if it passes, since some local share is usually required.

Although many districts have real needs, Prop 51 would come at a price.

At Felton Elementary, school officials are hoping a day will come when all students can learn in quiet classrooms free of the noise from the airplanes. 

However, Jade and other 3rd graders will be well into their 40s by the time the state pays off the bonds in about 2053.

Got a plan to fill out your ballot? KPCC’s Voter Game Plan page gathers together the information you'll need about candidates and races. Use our Voter’s Edge voter guide to see what your ballot will look like based on where you live.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.