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State initiative could ease local school bond passage

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Posted: Friday, October 20, 2000 10:00 pm

Twice a day, the custodial staff at Tokay High School hauls 30 desks into the school's student lounge adjacent to the cafeteria to create a makeshift classroom.

The overcrowded school, which has more than 2,600 students, has only one classroom without students during one period of the school day, officials said.

"We've been very creative with space," said Tokay Vice Principal Erik Sandstrom, who handles class scheduling.

Lodi Unified School District officials have tried several times to pass local school bonds to build new schools, including a fourth high school. All have failed to reach the two-thirds, or supermajority, needed for approval.

Voters statewide will soon decide whether to make it easier for local school districts to pass bonds to build new schools.

Proposition 39 would reduce the two-thirds requirement for school bonds to 55 percent.

The state initiative is similar to another measure narrowly defeated by voters in March. The previous effort pushed for a simple majority - 50 percent plus one vote.

Supporters say the initiative is a critical turning point for school districts that have suffered from population growth, aging schools and a space crunch caused by state efforts to reduce class size.

Taxpayer groups argue the initiative would double property taxes, hitting property owners on fixed incomes the hardest.

The two-thirds provision has ruled school bond passage in the state for the last 120 years.

School groups say the two-thirds requirement is a difficult hurdle to clear.

Lodi Unified School District has tried to pass three local school bonds, two Mello-Roos bonds to create special tax districts and a tax rate increase since 1974, but all attempts to finance new schools have failed.

The district's problem is not unique.

School bond measures proposed by school districts in Acampo and Galt haven't garnered enough support to pass either, with most receiving more than 60 percent approval by voters.

Proposition 39 has had a mixed reception locally.

"I wouldn't vote for it," said Lodi resident Gene Gorman, pointing to the supermajority provision as his reason.

Gorman, 62, said having the two-thirds of voters approve bond measures shows clear support in the community for raising property taxes.

"I would vote for more schools if there was more accountability," he said.

The Republican party is also opposing the initiative.

"It would make it easier to raise taxes," said Steve Fowler, Republican party chairman for San Joaquin County. "We're categorically opposed to that."

Fowler said other government entities would likely follow with similar proposals to reduce the two-thirds requirement for raising property taxes if Proposition 39 passes.

Supporters for the initiative include Gov. Gray Davis, teachers associations and business groups.

Lodi Unified trustees passed a resolution to support the measure, similar to ones approved by other school districts.

Randy Snider, co-chairman of Classroom for Kids, a group which pushed for Lodi Unified's last $122 million bond measure, said he supports the initiative.

The committee hasn't disbanded since the last campaign, he said. However, the group isn't pushing for another bond measure either, according to Snider.

"It's not something that we're sitting around banking on," he said.

The group is waiting to see how much the district will get in state hardship money to build a fourth high school, he said.

Snider said the committee may consider a bond measure for less money after the district's hardship application is funded by the state.

The district's last bond in September 1999 received 61.9 percent of voters' support.

"If it was a presidential election that would have been considered a landslide," Snider said.

Lodi Unified's classroom needs haven't diminished since the last bond measure, he said.

Student overcrowding continues to be a problem districtwide, officials said.

At Tokay, other classrooms, such as the welding shop, are being used for math classes, which are scheduled around the industrial arts program. An enclosed hallway with lockers, which was turned into a teacher workroom last year, has been renovated for use as a classroom.

"This year, we had to kick the teachers out of there and make it a classroom," Sandstrom said.

The school will get three new portable classrooms soon, which will end the use of the student lounge as a classroom. But how long the portables will stave off student overcrowding, no one knows.

Some teachers say having a classroom for more than two class periods is a premium.

English teacher Jennifer Garrard moves from classroom to classroom most of the day.

"It's hard, because my kids can never find me," she said.

Garrard usually hauls her classroom supplies around in a rolling luggage tote, she said.

She teaches one English class in the makeshift classroom in the student lounge, which is a challenge, she said.

Only a handful of teachers have the luxury of staying in one classroom all school day, Sandstrom said.

Over the years, the school has added 26 portable classrooms.

"Sooner or later, we're going to run out of space," Sandstrom said.

The reality is more schools are needed, he said.

"We're a public school. We can't just close the doors to new students coming into the school or district," Sandstrom said. "But where do you put them?"

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