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.
As California struggles with chronic budget shortfalls, it 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. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to settle. Since then, schools in 39 counties 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.
Across the Sacramento region, 49 schools are waiting for more than $75 million in emergency repair funding that the state has approved but not yet paid. The state owes 19 schools more than $1 million each, including nearly $7.8 million to Hiram W. Johnson High and $7.3 million to Fruit Ridge Elementary, both in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
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. Gray Davis put up a contentious fight. Over four years, the state spent nearly $20 million in legal fees to quash the suit.
When Davis was ousted in a recall election, 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 state's 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."
Funding for the Emergency Repair Program dried up when state revenue plummeted during the recession. The state was supposed to provide at least $100 million annually starting in 2005-06, using excess funds that had been routinely overbudgeted for special programs such as adult education, professional development or arts and music.
But as the state slashed education funding, lawmakers allowed districts to suspend special programs and devote the money instead to regular classroom instruction. With districts desperate for money to keep their doors open and no extra funds available, funding for the Emergency Repair Program stopped flowing.
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 had barely 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.
The State Allocation Board which holds the purse strings for state bonds and other funds for school construction and maintenance already has approved more than 1,400 applications from 708 schools that, when funded, will nearly exhaust the $800 million program.
"You have a program in which all of the funds are essentially spoken for," the ACLU's Allen said. "It removes motivation for anybody else to have a stake in it."
Balancing the budget has required lawmakers to make difficult decisions and deep cuts to many state programs, said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, who leads the Assembly Education Committee and sits on the State Allocation Board.
"Our approach with the budget has been, 'Well, we need to take care of our most vulnerable and particularly our poor children first and foremost' and I think that's what we've tried to do," she said. "That's taken precedent over perhaps the facilities issue."
In one case, Moreno Valley High School is owed $26 million for repairs, out of the nearly $445 million the state has approved but not paid.
The school's red brick buildings are dull with faded graffiti. Beige portables are crammed in tight rows, their facades peeling, roofs leaking and floors rotting. Basketball courts are cracked and brittle. The athletic field, surrounded by rusty chain-link fencing, is parched and lumpy with weeds, its uneven surface twisting ankles and scraping knees.
"I think the title says enough, doesn't it? Emergency Repair Program," said Stan Brown, who is now the Moreno Valley Unified School District's director of maintenance and operations. "Should it take four years to fund an emergency?"
On top of the projects in line for funding, the allocation board's staff, the Office of Public School Construction, has received applications from 769 schools requesting about $357.7 million exceeding the $800 million the program is required to pay.
Funding was in such high demand that the program stopped accepting applications in December 2010. Its application backlog has not been processed in 3 1/2 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.
Allen is pushing for the Emergency Repair Program to become a slice of the state's annual budget so that it's insulated from competition for education dollars. At the time of the settlement, no one anticipated that funding for the program could dry up, he said.
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 the 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."
Allen declined to say whether the ACLU would take the state back to court.
Still, he said, "I do think that we've reached and gone past the point of exasperation with it. Ultimately, we're hopeful there will be a legislative solution."