Many Rural California Communities are Desperate for School Construction Money. Will a New Bond Measure Offer Enough Help?

Students being taught a science lesson outside of the classroom at the Keyes Elementary School in Keyes on Nov. 15, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

By Carolyn Jones

As California’s fund to fix crumbling schools dwindles to nothing, lawmakers are negotiating behind the scenes to craft a ballot measure that would be the state’s largest school construction bond in decades.

But some beleaguered school superintendents say the money will not be nearly enough to fix all the dry rot, leaky roofs and broken air conditioners in the state’s thousands of school buildings. And it won’t change a system that they say favors wealthy, urban, left-leaning areas that can easily pass local bond measures to make needed repairs.

“The big question is, why can’t our kids have school buildings that are safe and as nice as other kids’ schools, just a few miles away?” said Helio Brasil, superintendent of Keyes Union School District, a rural TK-8 district in a low-income area south of Modesto. “This school is in such bad shape it can feel like a jail. …  I’m speaking up about this because I feel the system needs to be fixed. I don’t want the next generation of students to have to experience this.”

Two bills are currently under consideration in the Legislature, both of which would bring in billions to repair school facilities. Assembly Bill 247 would raise $14 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges, while Senate Bill 28, at $15.5 billion, includes the University of California and California State University, as well.

Legislators are likely to pick only one bill to send to Gov. Gavin Newsom for approval. AB 247 might have the advantage because it doesn’t include the state’s four-year university systems, both of which have means to raise their own revenue. So far it’s garnered little opposition, while SB 28 is opposed by two contractors’ associations because the bill prioritizes projects that use union labor.

The California Taxpayers Association is neutral on AB 247 but opposes SB 28 because it would increase the amount of money school districts could borrow, leading to higher property taxes. AB 247 doesn’t change the borrowing limit.

“It should also be remembered that the school districts get to write the ballot questions, and they always use wording that encourages a ‘yes’ vote and buries the part about the tax increase,” said association spokesman David Kline.

Addressing ‘the new reality’

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, chair of the Assembly education committee and a co-author of AB 247, said he’s confident the governor will approve a school bond for the November 2024 ballot, despite competition from a handful of other pricey bond proposals addressing housing, the fentanyl crisis and flood protection.

“The big question is, why can’t our kids have school buildings that are safe and as nice as other kids’ schools, just a few miles away?”

Helio Brasil, superintendent of Keyes Union School District

For Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance, fixing broken schools should be a top priority for California, especially as wildfires and extreme weather intensify.

“Our classrooms are aging, but we also need to address our new reality,” he said. “Classrooms of the 21st century should not only address students’ technical needs, but the reality of climate change.”

Unlike most other states, California does not have a permanent funding stream for repairing school facilities. Money comes from state and local bonds, which generate finite amounts of money, usually through property taxes. Although California has lavished money on schools in the past few years, most of that money is earmarked for efforts to help students recover from the pandemic. It can’t be spent on construction.

Typically, larger, urban and more affluent districts, which also tend to be more liberal, have an easier time raising funds. Not only are voters more likely to approve new taxes – the usual way that districts repay bonds – but property values are higher, thereby bringing in more money. In addition, districts can qualify for matching funds from the state, so “the more you have, the more you get,” said Julien Lafortune, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California.

In 2022, for example, the Mill Valley School District in Marin County was able to raise $194 million through a bond that taxed local property owners just 2.6 cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value – in a city where the average home price hovers around $2 million.

Meanwhile, the same year in rural San Lucas, south of King City in Monterey County, the school district tried passing a bond that would have taxed property owners more than twice that rate, but because the average home price is below $300,000 the bond would have raised only $3.6 million. Regardless, voters said no.

“The system is inequitable. More (school facilities) money goes to higher-income students than lower-income students,” Lafortune said. “There’s an understanding in California that we shouldn’t have these big inequities when it comes to books, supplies, resources. There’s all these efforts to correct inequities. And yet that’s not something that exists for school facilities.”

The state has a hardship fund for school districts that can’t cover their share of the matching funds. But the process to get hardship money is complicated, time-consuming and can be overly burdensome for rural superintendents who may also be teaching classes, driving the bus and serving lunch.

In a recent report, the Public Policy Institute of California recommends that California survey the condition of the state’s thousands of school buildings and adopt a system that ensures the neediest districts get more money.

Although both bills in the Legislature include tweaks to make funding more equitable, they don’t go far enough, said Jeff Vincent, co-founder of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley. Nearly 40% of California’s school districts can’t raise enough through local bonds — those that manage to pass them — to cover necessary repair costs. Any statewide bond should include significant aid for rural, small and low-income districts.

“Districts in areas with lower property values are really struggling,” Vincent said. “This means that children in more disadvantaged communities tend to have schools in a greater state of disrepair. … It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. It’s an issue of environmental health and safety.”

Better facilities, higher achievement

The stakes are high: students whose schools are in good condition perform 5% to 17% higher on standardized tests, are less likely to be suspended, and are more likely to attend school regularly, according to the California Department of Education. The reason, according to researchers, is that students focus better and have more pride in their school when buildings are comfortable and safe, with good air ventilation and temperature control.

“This school is in such bad shape it can feel like a jail. …  I’m speaking up about this because I feel the system needs to be fixed.”

Helio Brasil, superintendent of Keyes Union School District

Eric Gross, superintendent at Pacific Elementary School District in Santa Cruz County, has noticed that firsthand. For at least two decades, the roof has leaked so badly that staff have had to put trash cans in classrooms and hallways to collect rainwater during storms. Two engineers have recommended that a classroom be condemned, but the state took years before it finally approved the project earlier this month.

A bucket catches water due to a leak in a sixth-grade classroom at Pacific Elementary School in Santa Cruz on Nov. 14, 2023. According to Superintendent Eric Gross, the ceiling leaks even on foggy mornings. Photo by Clara Mokri for CalMatters

“The other day a teacher came to me and said, ‘The siding in my room is rotting.’ I said yeah, I know. She said, ‘OK, just wanted to make sure you knew.’ … Our staff is great but there’s a level of demoralization. It’s frustrating but everyone just accepts it,” Gross said.

He’s come to rely on parent volunteers to perform basic maintenance at the 150-student school in the town of Davenport. Parents replace broken door handles, prune blackberry bushes, fix broken windows and build benches.

“On the first day of school I tell the families, there are no passengers on this ship. Everyone rows,” he said.

Small districts like his desperately need more assistance from the state, he said. Not just more money, but help managing large projects. Gross is too busy running the school to hire consultants, negotiate with contractors, submit the reams of required paperwork or oversee major projects.

“I can teach your kids to read, but I am not a construction manager,” he said. “The state needs to step in to help superintendents like me, because we don’t have the time or expertise to do this on our own.”

Dry rot and gophers

Keyes Union School District, where Brasil has been superintendent for seven years, is a patchwork of deferred maintenance and jerry-rigging. Any money for repairs is long gone: The last time local voters passed a school construction bond was in 2005, and the state fund is depleted, as well. The elementary school gym, for example, doubles as a cafeteria, which means staff haul dozens of folding tables in and out daily. The middle school gym was never finished, so it lacks seating and locker rooms; students change in small, stuffy portables across the playground. Some of the roofs are 40 years old. A decade ago, an electrical malfunction sparked a pre-dawn fire in the Head Start building, engulfing it in flames.

But for the past two years, Keyes’ most pressing issue has been gophers. Lured by the adjacent almond orchards, gophers invaded the middle school soccer field — one of only two fields in the town and shared with the community. The field was so pocked with divots and holes that anyone running across it risked an ankle injury or worse. The only way to make it usable again was to dig it up, regrade it and install new sod.

Brasil didn’t have many financing options. The state rejected the district’s request for repair money, so it had to borrow $700,000 to complete the project.

“I wanted kids to have a nice, safe place to play, to run, to blow off steam after the pandemic. I would have rather spent that money on tutoring or after-school programs, but to me, this felt like the most important thing,” Brasil said.

Dr. Helio Brasil stands in the hallway next to the construction tape for the project on new classrooms at the Keyes Elementary School in Keyes on Nov. 15, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Jeff Roberts, superintendent of Plumas Lake Elementary School District in Yuba County, has a different problem. His school buildings are in good shape, but the district is growing so fast he needs to build an entire new school — or risk cutting programs and increasing class sizes.

In the early 2000s, the district had only 100 students. But due to a housing boom in the region, he anticipates 2,200 students by 2030. The amount of money needed to build a new school is daunting: a new school will cost $70 million to $100 million. The district can only raise $18 million through a local bond. Developers’ fees will bring in an additional $20 million, but that still leaves the district with only half the money it needs. Roberts is relying on the state to pass a new school construction bond so he can apply for the remainder of the funds.

“I went into education for teaching and learning. Now, what I spend most of my time on is worrying about housing students,” Roberts said. “If we can’t figure this out, we’re going to have to cut things like P.E., art, music to make room for students. It’s extremely frustrating because we know that’s not what’s best for students’ education.”

This article was originally published by CalMatters.


Written by CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. (Articles are published in partnership with

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