Professor Joel Fox on "Success of L.A. School Bond Offers a Lesson for Nation's Politicians" | Los Angeles Daily News
Success of L.A. school bond offers a lesson for nation’s politicians: Guest commentary
At a time of toxic national polarization, a Los Angeles success story 20 years in the making was recently completed, because people with different political perspectives worked together to accomplish a goal — repair schools and build new schools efficiently and cost-effectively for L.A.’s students.
After a rocky start, the building of 131 new schools finally finished this year, 20 years after the passage of the first school construction bond, following decades of meager public support for school bonds.
But it took an unusual coalition of outsiders from different points on the political compass to make it happen.
In 1999, then-Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, coordinated with Genethia Hayes, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an African American civil-rights organization, to take over three seats on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. With Hayes as new board president and the vote of incumbent board member Valerie Fields, the new leaders hired Superintendent Roy Romer, a former Colorado governor. Romer didn’t need the job and therefore could reject the board’s norm of destructive micromanagement and the district’s culture of timid failure.
Romer, faced with a $30 billion overcrowding crisis, went big. He brilliantly convinced Captain Jim McConnell, a Navy engineer, to forgo an appointment at Annapolis for one more mission: build schools for thousands of school kids sitting in trailers and on window sills. McConnell brought half a platoon of his fellow Navy engineers, known as Seabees (a nickname for the Construction Battalion, or CB).
After a difficult adjustment to district bureaucracy, McConnell created a banner that changed the Seabee motto from “We Build to Fight” to “We Fight to Build.” The Seabees never looked back and, with the district’s construction professionals, created the lean, clean, building machine that we acknowledge today.
But before the Seabees could do their thing, the district needed money. That’s where we came in during the early stages of this massive effort.
Proposition BB, on the Los Angeles 1997 ballot, looked like an uphill battle. No school bonds had been passed in decades. And it required a two-thirds vote to pass. The school district hoped to convince voters the bond construction money would be spent wisely when it created a Blue Ribbon Taxpayers Oversight Committee. Its appointees were mostly downtown insiders.
Joel Fox, then president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, wrote a newspaper opinion piece that acknowledged the LAUSD school construction needs but cited recent mishandling of school funds,. He said taxpayers were waiting to be convinced that bond money would be used wisely.
Soon the LAUSD offered the Jarvis Taxpayers Association a position on the oversight committee to make sure the money was spent well. With the added assurance, voters passed the bond.
It turned out a check on the school district was warranted. Initially, the oversight committee was informed about projects after decisions were made by the district. The Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit, and a court declared that the committee was not there to just count nails after they were pounded in — it was to have real input on construction project spending.
The clamps were further tightened with the Riordan-Hayes collaboration on changing the school board and Superintendent Romer’s new management team.
When a state school bond passed a year after the local bond, the Advancement Project, co-directed by Connie Rice, filed a lawsuit that resulted in about a billion dollars in school construction money coming to L.A. and other urban areas. This was money previously slated for less crowded, more affluent suburban school districts. Subsequently, Rice took over the oversight committee seat created for the Jarvis Taxpayers Association to keep an eye on the spending.
With the money in place and tighter controls over spending to achieve the construction goals, the Navy Seabees proceeded to complete their mission.
Ultimately, voters in the Los Angeles school district passed five construction bonds. Among the schools built by this effort are the Northridge Academy High School, the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, Canoga Park Early Education Center, the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, the Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences, the downtown Cesar Chavez campus, Panorama High School and Sun Valley High School.
The schools got built because opponents helped to secure early money and experts helped an independent Romer and the superb Navy-run building juggernaut to deliver new campuses.
It is a singular achievement with lessons that our torn nation needs to learn today.
Connie Rice is a civil rights lawyer and former chairwoman of the LAUSD School Construction Bond Oversight Committee. Joel Fox runs the public-affairs website FoxandHoundsDaily.com, teaches at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, and is former president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.