Voters to decide on Beverly Hills school bond

L.A. Unified's $7 billion school facilities bond is the region's largest on the November 4 ballot. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says a school district most people wouldn't consider needy placed the second-largest bond measure on next month's ballot.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Beverly Hills Unified School Board President Myra Demeter admits there's a public perception that her school district's swimming in money.

Myra Demeter: I think that they think we are equal to a private school. That it is all marble and beautiful.

Guzman-Lopez: That's not true, she says, as she points to 80-year-old Beverly Hills High School.

Demeter: As you can see, the structure has many needs, and we're trying to address them right now. Because the reality is that as much as we've tried to upgrade with our limited financial resources, we have been able to do some work, but there are still some critical needs.

Guzman-Lopez: Beverly Hills Unified does receive higher-than-average state allocations for salaries and instructional needs. But money to upgrade and build classrooms comes from separate state funds and from school bonds.

The school district's passed two bond measures in the last 15 years. After the last one, the school board asked district staff to consider how much money it would require to take care of all facilities needs.

Demeter: The process took two years. So they met at each site with staff, they met with security personnel, our police department. They met with parents, teachers, and they had professionals do studies: seismic studies, security studies, etcetera. They identified $600 million of needs.

Guzman-Lopez: Demeter says consultants found strong support in Beverly Hills for a $334 million school facilities bond. So the school board placed Measure E on the ballot for that amount. If the measure passes, a current property tax would be extended for 50 years.

More than half the bond would go to fix the aging Beverly Hills High campus. The school's graduated plenty of notables and educated the children of the rich and famous. School board president Myra Demeter says the campus isn't as secure as it could be.

Demeter: And as we walk to the front of the building, you'll see that there are numerous doorways that lead into the building, and although the doors are locked, there are various times where they are not locked. And you can see all along here, we have several different doors there. We have a courtyard there that has many, many doors.

Guzman-Lopez: The school district's Parent Teacher Association urges a "yes" vote. So does the president of the Beverly Hills teachers union. But the union as a whole remains neutral. Former school board member Mel Spitz leads the low-profile opposition.

Mel Spitz: The way the measure reads, it's extremely vague as to how the money will be expended. There are not, for example, specific projects with documented costs. It's so vague that it amounts to a blank check.

Guzman-Lopez: Proponents say a citizens' oversight committee will make sure that's not the case.

Beverly Hills Unified test scores are pretty good now. They rest at around 850 in recent years on the 1,000 point Academic Performance Index. Schools in Irvine, Arcadia, and San Marino are setting the new standard with significantly higher scores.

Pretty good isn't good enough, says Beverly Hills native John Mirsch, a co-author of the ballot argument against Measure E. He concedes that the classrooms could use an upgrade, but...

John Mirsch: It is also important to make sure that the academic standards and the school ranking is at the top. Which is a potential that the school district achieved for many years in the '70s and '80s when it was known as a lighthouse district – lighthouse meaning that it sort of shines a light on what is possible in public education.

Guzman-Lopez: That's the work most districts say they're struggling to carry out. But with less state money each year to achieve their goals, many school districts are finding out that local school bond measures are a safer bet than more money from Sacramento.