Over the next few weeks the Beverly Hills Unified School District Board of Education will be seeking community support to pull forward the issuance of the Measure E bond funds from the originally authorized timetable. There is some contention as to whether the board has the authority to increase real estate taxes beyond the bond language's commitment but putting that aside, the argument is that it would be better to move faster in rebuilding our schools. Now, although there's definitely a case for improving our school's infrastructure I'm personally going to need some convincing of the wisdom in borrowing more money earlier. Even before discussing that we’ve already spent over a third of the first $72 million bond sale with very little to show, there is the issue of our district struggling with its ongoing operating budget.
The school board has stated that we're looking at a shortfall next year and thereafter of around $4 million per annum. This means that as currently configured our BHUSD has a structural deficit. Recognizing the long term nature of the gap, the board passed a resolution to place a parcel tax on the March ballot and although the parcel tax vote was subsequently cancelled, it begs the question of what is a sustainable cost structure? Now the current board has made some decisions that have exacerbated the operating shortfall such as the new lunch program and the decision to purchase a residence for the superintendent - back of the envelope (because there isn't any better public information) these two decisions represent around $500k per year. But clearly there is a big gap between how we're running our schools and what our district can support in the near term.
In addition to what the district is spending, there's also the issue of what we aren't funding—our district has a huge amount of deferred maintenance. Various petitions and groups are calling for the City to assist in the shortfall but unless the there is a long-term commitment by the City then we are looking at using one-time money for long-term commitments. And that's just bad policy.
High school education in particular is on the cusp of a complete revolution as high-quality, Internet-based courses are becoming widely available and the student experience transitions to being much more like college. That means the days of a teacher standing at the front a classroom introducing new material are giving way to students assimilating lessons individually at their own pace and then practicing in small groups with the teacher acting more like a coach/tutor. Similarly, educational thought leaders are broadly convinced that technical classes in the 5th-8th grades are best delivered in dedicated middle schools—BHUSD's own consultants have tried to bring this up time and again.
And here’s where the questions of operating and capital budgets meet. Every plan for spending the Measure E bond funds calls for replicating the 1950s—granted with better architecture and nicer carpets but nonetheless Ozzie and Harriet school buildings. Just a couple of specific items:
—Every discussion is around a 900+ square foot classroom with the teacher at the front using a white board—and that’s not even how a lot of classes work today. Interesting aside, schools with classrooms on each side of a central corridor are modeled from 18th century woolen mills in England with their control ethos and children have the summer off because they were traditionally part of the family farm workforce needed to gather in the crops.
—If you've been in the high school swim/gym recently it’s obvious that there's at least 20 years upkeep that hasn't been done. The fatal flaw is that the swimming pool hasn't met competitive standards for decades—it needs to be 25 meters long and eight-lanes wide. The problem is that there’s no way to fit that size pool in the building, so the solution to providing our kids with a pool that meets CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) standards is—to build another separate swimming complex. That's right, we can't maintain the facilities we have but we're now planning to build a second complex; hence my concern about the relation to operating budgets.
—Similarly, every iteration of the high school plan also calls for 1,000 underground parking spaces which are approximately $50K per space to build. The question is why build, light, maintain and secure all these when graduating classes will stabilize after permits at around 450 students?
Turning back to the question of value for the $25 million odd bond money already spent. Unfortunately, effectively all the time, money and community effort spent developing a master plan with the DeJong-Richter firm has been tossed out and the recommended clustered teaching spaces eliminated from the plans for Horace Mann. Similarly, we've seen staff work and plans for a fence in front of the high school (which was always a bad idea) approved, disapproved and would then have been ripped out anyway because of the near million-dollar trench dug to argue with the MTA. To my thinking before borrowing and spending we need to ask and answer some big questions such as:
1. Would a middle school better serve the needs of our children with a greater emphasis on science and technology?
2. We have a structural deficit so why aren't we conducting a zero-based budgeting exercise where everything is put up for re-evaluation?
3. What spaces and capacity do we need at our school for the next 50 years looking forward rather than what was needed at the dawn of television?
Personally, I voted for Measure E in the first place and will happily get behind a clearly thought out plan that delivers value for our taxpayer money and is balanced with what we can afford to operate. The trouble is I haven't seen that plan yet and until then my recommendation is for the community to stick with the original bond issuance schedule—we'll still get the entire $334 million and also have the time to think things through properly—and spend wisely. Let's ask our school board to come back with a balanced plan—one where we only build what we need and can afford to operate and maintain. Let's properly investigate why educational theory holds that a middle school better prepares our children for science and technology. And let's have a meeting to agree on a consensus plan that will yield real educational results rather than just the need to spend money.