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. Schwarzenegger agreed to settle. Since then, schools in 39 counties including Stanislaus 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 Modesto, two districts could not wait for the funds and moved ahead, dipping into savings or reaching out to voters for help.
In Modesto City Schools, Shackelford Elementary is waiting for more than $562,000 in emergency repair repayments that the state has approved but not yet paid.
District spokeswoman Becky Fortuna said the school needed to connect to the city sewer system and renovate its restrooms, high-priority projects the district had to do with or without state help. Shackelford's plumbing upgrades were completed in 2008 and 2009 using district reserves and deferred maintenance funds.
Modesto badly needed the financial help, but chief business officer Julie Chapin said, "Based on the current state economy and the fact that all funding has been shut off for this appropriation, the district is not budgeting for reimbursement dollars currently or the foreseeable future."
In the Stanislaus Union Elementary School District in north Modesto, more than three years have passed since Chrysler Elementary, Eisenhut Elementary and now-closed Muncy Elementary applied for nearly $1.3 million; the state has not yet reviewed their applications. Muncy closed at the end of the 2008-09 school year.
Stanislaus Union business manager Sandy Putnam said the three schools qualified for the money, but when it didn't come through the district turned to a general obligation bond passed by voters. Needed bathroom upgrades at Chrysler and Eisenhut went ahead with bond money and state facilities dollars separate from the Emergency Repair Program.
"The state wasn't funding it, and we didn't know when they would," Putnam said. Work is just finishing on the Chrysler bathrooms, replacing rotting wooden floors in the relocatable units with concrete and adding drains.
The spruced up and better-smelling bathrooms also meet requirements for disabled access, said Maintenance Operations Supervisor Keith England as he showed off the utilitarian white rooms Tuesday.
Davis fought the lawsuit
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. Davis put up a contentious fight. Over four years, the state spent nearly $20 million in legal fees to quash the lawsuit. When Davis was ousted in a recall, 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 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 barely had 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.
Funding was in such high demand that the program stopped accepting applications in December 2010. Its application backlog has not been processed in 3½ years.
Gov. Jerry Brown proposed devoting a little less than $12.3 million to the Emergency Repair Program in this fiscal year. But, as it did in years past, the Legislature eliminated the funding.
Without legislative commitment for annual funding or without returning to court to amend the Williams settlement, the Emergency Repair Program "ain't going to win," said Jackie Goldberg, a former state assemblywoman from Los Angeles who wrote a bill that expanded the program to include grant funding.
"Just like deferred maintenance doesn't win, like textbooks never win because they're not people. We don't lay them off," she said. "What moves the Legislature is people, and if I were there, it'd move me, too. I'd pick people over things every time."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin contributed to this story.
California Watch is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more, visit http://californiawatch.org.