Skip to comments.CA: Millions to repair schools untapped - Districts may fear they won't be repaid for work
Posted on 04/20/2006 9:08:10 AM PDT by NormsRevenge
SACRAMENTO The settlement of a landmark lawsuit two years ago created a $200 million state fund for emergency repairs in low-performing schools throughout California, but little of the money has been spent.
Leaky roofs, broken toilets and other problems requiring urgent repair were cited in the suit. Only $247,000 has been spent from the fund far less than the $30 million paid to attorneys in the suit.
Some lawmakers think the fund, which is scheduled to grow by $200 million a year and reach $800 million by 2008, is not being used because school districts with tight budgets first must pay for the repairs themselves and then apply for repayment. To ease concern among districts that they might not be repaid if the work is ruled to be routine rather than an emergency, the state has begun offering conceptual approval before work begins.
The chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, said there might be bipartisan support in the Legislature for changing the way the repair money is distributed if it does not begin flowing soon.
Several of us are considering an urgency message to turn them into grants, Goldberg said. We haven't decided to do that yet, but we are talking about it.
She said the state school construction office is alerting districts that repair funds are available. The office has given conceptual approval to $6.6 million in projects and has pending applications totaling $7.3 million.
The repair fund accounts for most of the $1 billion settlement of a class-action suit filed in 2000. The suit, Williams v. California, argued that the state was failing to ensure that students had the basic tools needed for education quality teachers, adequate books and decent facilities, particularly in low-income minority areas.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit was Eliezer Williams, a seventh-grader in a San Francisco school where books were said to be scarce, the toilets chronically clogged and some classrooms were infested by mice.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the settlement in August 2004 and reversed the policy of former Gov. Gray Davis, who took the unusual step of hiring a large private law firm, O'Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles, to fight the suit.
The settlement was a major victory for civil rights law firms, mainly the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California.
Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney who launched the suit, said his law firm has pursued litigation on Los Angeles school desegregation, jail conditions and county supervisorial districts.
In addition to the repair fund, the settlement included $138 million for textbooks in schools with low test scores; a phasing out of shortened school years in overcrowded districts; and a new inspection and reporting system.
In schools where student scores rank in the bottom third on the annual state performance test, county school officials must monitor teacher assignments and make annual inspections of textbooks and building maintenance.
Students, teachers and parents now can file complaints about texts, facilities and teacher assignments, which must be reported to county school officials each quarter.
The failure of school districts to get money from the $200 million fund, which has been available since summer, raises questions: Was the dire condition of school buildings alleged in the lawsuit exaggerated? Should the $800 million targeted for repairs be spent in other ways, such as encouraging skilled teachers to work in troubled schools?
Goldberg, who taught in city schools and later served on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said she has spoken with school officials about the need for repairs.
Nobody disagreed that they identified needs, Goldberg said. What they are afraid of is someone will say, 'That's not an emergency.'
The ACLU, which has learned that prevailing in a civil-rights suit is sometimes only half the battle, has assigned lawyer Brooks Allen to monitor the settlement's implementation.
Allen said school inspections found more than $800 million in needed repairs.
So we know there is a big need out there, he said.
The first payment from the fund was made in July to a school in San Diego County for a repair that likely would have been done even if the school wasn't eligible for money from the fund.
Kempton Elementary in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District received $16,725 from the fund for repairing a 3-inch water line, said Ken Clark, a district assistant superintendent.
In a report of annual Williams settlement inspections of 104 schools in 16 districts in San Diego County, county Superintendent Rudy Castruita said in February that no situations requiring emergency repairs were found.
All district schools made great efforts to ensure that all schools visited were clean, safe and functional, said Castruita's report. The condition and cleanliness of the school grounds, buildings and restrooms was good overall.
Robert Nicholson, fiscal planning director for the San Diego County Office of Education, said he thinks applications for emergency repair funds will increase when school is out this summer.
I think there are a lot of sites out there that need the funds and the repairs, Nicholson said.
As the suit moved toward trial, some of the media attention was on the decision by Davis not to settle the case and to hire high-priced outside counsel, instead of relying on the state attorney general.
Davis argued that the state had increased funding for textbooks, teacher training and school construction and that the 1,048 school districts were responsible for providing adequate school conditions.
Harsh questioning by O'Melveny and Myers lawyers in legal proceedings reduced some young students to tears. The state filed a countersuit to force the 18 school districts cited in the suit none in San Diego County to fix defects proved in court.
Over five years, the state appropriated a total of $17 million to pay O'Melveny and Myers. Much of the money was never spent, said the state Department of Finance, and the total payment to the firm was $11.5 million.
The biggest state payment, $14 million, went to eight law firms representing the plaintiffs. The ACLU of Southern California received nearly $7 million, and Public Advocates received $3 million.
The state's Office of the Attorney General, representing the state but not the governor, ran up a bill of $4.2 million, bringing the state's overall expenditure for attorney fees and costs to nearly $30 million.
The big gun for the plaintiff attorneys was Jack Londen of Morrison and Foerster in San Francisco, a large San Francisco law firm that paid for experts and other trial costs and did not charge an attorney fee.
It was one of the biggest cases I have worked on in 25 years in terms of of the evidence and the facts that had to be marshaled, Londen said.
Of particular concern to him, Londen said, was an education system that seemed to have been designed so that policy-makers were not informed about school conditions.
They set things up so they wouldn't know about it, Londen said.
When a judge approved a $14 million state payment to plaintiff attorneys in May, he was swayed in large part by Morrison and Foerster's offer to waive $16 million in attorney fees.
The judge was told that Morrison and Foerster worked 74,000 of the more than 115,000 hours piled up by plaintiff attorneys. The $14 million payment included $2.4 million to Morrison and Foerster for its trial costs.
The state payment approved by the judge was welcomed by John Affeldt of Public Advocates, who had worked on a suit for a decade only to get a court ruling that he would receive no fee.
That's how we are able to keep the doors open and are able to do the work, Affeldt said of the attorney fees.
So typical of the dysfunctional fraud that the California state government represents. Thank you liberals for your normal incompetence, malfeasance and corruption...
"...$30 million paid to attorneys..."
That's the problem.