Contrary to some popular opinions floating around the Internet, proposed legislation by Altadena Democratic Sen. Jack Scott would not allow the Pasadena Unified School District to sell surplus property and use the proceeds to grant raises, balance budgets or rebuild dwindling financial reserves.
In an interview with the Pasadena Weekly, Scott said his amended proposal, Senate Bill 1415, is simply aimed at forcing school districts around California to think more carefully before selling off surplus property by extending the amount of time that school administrators have to request school construction funds from five to 10 years following such sales.
But perhaps most importantly, money made as a result of those sales could only be used one time in order to cover expenses such as making repairs to existing school district facilities.
Education watchers became concerned about Scott’s bill last Wednesday after a message was posted on schools critic Rene Amy’s PUSD Greatschools Internet listserve claiming that an amendment to Scott’s bill would allow the proceeds from such sales to be used to correct school district budget problems and potential management errors.
The PUSD has been in the throes of a budget crisis for the past two years. Last year, a $6.5 million budget gap, brought on by dramatic declines in enrollment, forced the Board of Education to close four schools, eliminate the district’s police force, cut busing and lay off some personnel.
That bad financial news came in the fifth year that the district has ignored voter recommendations for an audit of district management, something that is being done only now that the City Council is looking into taking an active role in managing school district finances.
Three of the schools that have been closed — Noyes, Edison and Linda Vista elementary schools — are located in Altadena, an unincorporated area bordering Pasadena over which the county of Los Angeles has jurisdictional authority.
Residents there are presently attempting to secede from the PUSD and form their own school district, one that would likely utilize those sites.
Over the past several weeks, residents of Altadena and Pasadena have expressed fears that there are plans in the works to sell or lease those sites for affordable housing.
The other school that’s been closed is Allendale elementary, which is located in Pasadena.
One post on the Greatschools listserve called SB 1415 “bail out legislation for the district.”
Scott told the Weekly that he had no conversations with local school officials about the bill and was unaware of any reservations expressed on Amy’s listserve.
“I had no idea that there would be a local concern with this bill,” Scott said. “I think it’s a huge misunderstanding. This bill had nothing to with the local situation. I have absolutely never had any conversations with the Pasadena Unified School District about this matter. And secondly, this bill actually ties the schools’ hands more than they were previously.”
Much of the confusion appears to stem from an amendment to the bill. The original language of the proposed legislation called for the proceeds from any sale or lease of district property to be used “in a manner that provides for the long-term financial security of the district.”
That statement was later amended to say any sale or lease “shall be used for one-time expenditures and may not be used for ongoing expenditures including, but not limited to, salaries and other general operating expenses.”
Altadena resident Jerry Rhoads, one of the organizers of efforts to create a separate school district in Altadena, said Scott’s legislation still needs clarification.
“The bottom line is there is a line in there that says one-time expenditure, and that is not defined. Where is it defined in the law and how is a court going to determine it? It’s just not there,” Rhoads said. “I would like to see Sen. Scott get this legislation clarified so we can have some assurances that the sites we have paid for will be used properly, and in consultation with the local community.”
Pasadena Board of Education member Bill Bibbiani told the Weekly he wanted to find a way to reopen the schools, which he said the PUSD is not planning to sell.
“I get tired of conspiracy theorists” who say the board has secret plans to sell those properties, Bibbiani said.
As things stand now, “Selling the property does not generate any money that we can use. I’d like to figure out a way to reopen the sites,” he said.
Scott said he had received several calls last week about the bill, but was unaware of the controversy because he was in Sacramento at the time.
“Schools should never be able to take money that is one-time money and use it for ongoing expenses,” Scott said. “They will get in trouble if they do that. If they gave salary raises or hired more personnel, what would they do after the money was used up? So the first thing we did was, we said that when you sell school property, when you take that money, it has to be for one-time expenses such as the repair of a roof or the purchase of equipment or something of that nature.”
According to Scott, inspiration for the bill came after a financially troubled district near San Jose sold a school site. At that time, members of the State Allocation Board started talking about how the money from the sale should be used.
Under current law, a district has the right to sell surplus property, but has to wait five years before asking the State Allocation Board for money to build a new site. SB 1415 would require them to wait at least 10 years before requesting money for additional sites.
“I was concerned, as were members of the State Allocation Board, about schools too quickly selling property that they are going to eventually need and then taking the money and using it in unwise ways,” Scott said.
“Right now, [the law] says the schools cannot come to the Allocation Board within a five-year period and ask for money to build a new school. The last thing we wanted them to do is sell off a piece of property and then five years down the line suddenly come back to the state and say, ‘Hey, we’re growing now and we need to build a new school,’” he said.
The bill has already passed the Senate and the Assembly and is presently on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk for signing, said Wendy Gordon, Scott’s chief deputy.
“It’s like if you use your savings account to get yourself out of a jam,” Scott further explained. “You can’t do that for very long. That’s why we did it and somebody else said, ‘I don’t think five years is long enough.’”
In any case, “I would be glad to answer any questions any constituents have,” Scott said.