Eight years after California settled a landmark lawsuit promising hundreds of millions of dollars to repair shoddy school facilities, more than 700 schools still are waiting for their share of funds as students take classes on dilapidated campuses with health and safety hazards.
California has funded less than half of the $800 million required by the Emergency Repair Program, which grew out of a class-action lawsuit against the state that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to settle. Since then, schools in 39 counties have waited as long as four years for the money to fix leaking roofs, crumbling pavement and clogged sewer lines.
As their projects languish without funding, schools are watching buildings deteriorate and hairline fissures split into cracks wide enough to swallow pennies. They’re scraping by with temporary fixes, diverting money from their classrooms and delaying other critical facility repairs.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, 45 schools are waiting for $18.9 million in emergency repair funding that the state has approved but not yet paid. The state owes Santa Rosa City Schools more than $5 million for repairs it made – and in some cases still needs to make – at five schools.
James Monroe Elementary has asbestos to abate and old, dysfunctional playground equipment to replace. Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, formerly John Fremont Elementary, has deteriorated, leaky roofing to replace and restrooms to modernize. Lawrence Cook Middle has aging hallway doors, worn and battered by kicking students, and a local school construction bond awaiting reimbursement.
But Jennifer Bruneman, director of maintenance and operations at Santa Rosa City Schools, isn’t counting on the state delivering that funding any time soon.
“We are on a very long laundry list,” she said. “One day, somewhere down the line, maybe when we’re all gone, we will get this money coming in.”
The Emergency Repair Program was born out of a landmark class-action lawsuit that sought to entitle every student to a clean, safe and functional school.
Williams v. California, filed in 2000 by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations, charged that tens of thousands of students, the majority low-income and nonwhite, were being deprived of basic educational opportunities by attending schools in “slum conditions.”
In school after school, students reported too few working toilets, infestations of rats and cockroaches, and illnesses brought on by mold and fungus in their classrooms.
Then-Gov. Gray Davis put up a contentious fight. Over four years, the state spent nearly $20 million in legal fees to quash the suit. When Davis was ousted in a recall election, Schwarzenegger called his predecessor’s position “outrageous.” In 2004, within a year of taking office, Schwarzenegger settled the lawsuit and declared: “We will neglect our children no more.”
California agreed to pay $800 million under the settlement for the state’s lowest-performing schools to address emergency conditions in their facilities.
“You had this cycle of disrepair,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California and the attorney overseeing the settlement’s implementation. “The concept of this program was where you have an urgent health and safety issue, you should be able to take care of that right away.”
Every year starting in the 2005-06 fiscal year, the state was supposed to put at least $100 million into the Emergency Repair Program using leftover education funds; the program should be in its final year of funding.
Instead, the state’s contributions to date – $338 million – have remained unchanged for the past five years. Money had barely begun to flow when lawmakers raided the program and then only partially reimbursed it. For the past four years, amid budget shortfalls, the Legislature has amended state law to excuse itself from annual payments.
More than 1,540 schools have applied for emergency repair funding, and more than 1,150 have received at least some money. Many are waiting for more funding, which is awarded in the order that applications are received, while others have received nothing.
The State Allocation Board – which holds the purse strings for state bonds and other funds for school construction and maintenance – already has approved more than 1,400 applications from 708 schools that, when funded, will nearly exhaust the $800 million program.
“You have a program in which all of the funds are essentially spoken for,” the ACLU’s Allen said. “It removes motivation for anybody else to have a stake in it.”
Balancing the budget has required lawmakers to make difficult decisions and deep cuts to many state programs, said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, who leads the Assembly Education Committee and sits on the State Allocation Board.
“Our approach with the budget has been, well, we need to take care of our most vulnerable … and particularly our poor children first and foremost, and I think that’s what we’ve tried to do,” she said. “That’s taken precedent over perhaps the facilities issue.”
Funds in high demand
Yet the need for emergency repair money remains.
On top of the projects in line for funding, the allocation board’s staff, the Office of Public School Construction, has received applications from 769 schools requesting about $357.7 million – exceeding the $800 million the program is required to pay.
Funding was in such high demand that the program stopped accepting applications in December 2010. Its application backlog has not been processed in three and a half years.
“They’re just sitting there,” said Adrian Felseghi, the Emergency Repair Program’s project manager and lone staffer. Without money from the state, Felseghi has nothing to send to approved projects, no reason to process applications that exceed the settlement’s pot of funds.
Felseghi is all that’s left of a five-person team that handled the program a few years ago. Because emergency repair projects are in a holding pattern, he spends half his time on the program – he reviews other school construction applications the rest of the time.
“We’ve been still talking to districts, and many of them are still waiting for the money, which is really sad because if this was an emergency four years ago, now it’s really bad,” he said.
As school districts continue to wait on state funds, initial needs have grown more severe and expensive. In some cases, the cost of waiting goes beyond deteriorating buildings.
In one case, Moreno Valley High School is owed $26 million for repairs, out of the nearly $445 million the state has approved but not paid.
Stan Brown was a student at the high school when Moreno Valley was on the verge of explosive growth as a bedroom community to Los Angeles and Orange counties. The town, once deserted by water-starved farmers, rebounded thanks to its military airfield built to train fighter pilots.
“When I was here in the ’70s, it was a very attractive school,” said Brown, who is now the Moreno Valley Unified School District’s director of maintenance and operations. But today, he said, “it’s beaten up.”
The school’s red brick buildings are dull with faded graffiti. Beige portables are crammed in tight rows, their facades peeling, roofs leaking and floors rotting. Basketball courts are cracked and brittle. The athletic field, surrounded by rusty chain-link fencing, is parched and lumpy with weeds, its uneven surface twisting ankles and scraping knees.
Brown would like to fix all these problems, but the money to do so has not come. Across Moreno Valley Unified, 15 schools are waiting for the state to deliver on more than $75 million.
“I think the title says enough, doesn’t it? Emergency Repair Program,” Brown said. “Should it take four years to fund an emergency?”
Moreno Valley Unified closed off a portable classroom at Edgemont Elementary School after mold and water saturated its walls and ceiling and seeped beneath its floors. As a result, Edgemont does not have enough classrooms to serve students, and the district must bus children elsewhere. This past year, 18 kindergartners who would have used the portable were sent to two other schools.
“If we had that portable available, those 18 kids, they would have stayed at the site,” said Sergio San Martin, director of the district’s facilities planning division.
The portable remains on campus, unused, because the district cannot afford to remove and replace it without emergency repair funding.