Some friends and I were watching the news a couple months back, as journalists were covering the opening of a new high school in South
Los Angeles. The TV reporter asked a student attending his first day of class on this beautiful, brand new campus what the new school meant for him. The student thought for a moment, looked at the reporter and said, simply, something like, "It's nice, because it shows that somebody cares about us."
As L.A. citizens, that moment made my friends and me proud. We didn't help build that school; we weren't even there on the day it opened; and until recently, I personally had not followed the school district's construction effort that closely. But, my neighbors and I remembered voting for school bonds that had helped that student and thousands like him feel like somebody cared about them. As voters, we were that somebody.
Now, we all face the choice of whether or not to support another school bond. It's called Measure Y. Some folks ask, "What, another one? Why now?"
What these folks may not remember is that until the late '90s, we had not passed a school bond for 35 years. In other words, for almost four decades, we got a free ride as our population swelled and our schools got more crowded.
More kids had to get on a bus to go to a school an hour or more away, because their neighborhood schools had no room for them. Our existing schools became more run down, and our kids' education deteriorated.
From following the news, from my own observations and from speaking to district officials, I know that thousands of repairs have been made to our existing neighborhood schools. And dozens of new schools are opening. When I checked recently, I learned that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) opened 14 last year; it will open 32 more this year. This fall, at the start of the school year, the school system opened 13 campuses on a single day. To my knowledge, no other school district has ever done this.
Things are finally looking up. The school bond program is a success story.
But more schools need to be built. We as a community aren't done.
Yes, it's true, as some have pointed out, that the school district already has the money needed to reduce much of the overcrowding at middle and high schools. However, if we don't pass this bond, we are ignoring our most needy elementary school students; over 20,000 elementary school students will not be able to return to the traditional, nonyear-round schedule that we all grew up with. Without this bond, over 20,000 elementary students will not feel overcrowding relief.
This bond, Measure Y, besides building schools, helps accomplish other important tasks, too. It finishes the job of furnishing all schools with up-to-date fire alarms -- can you believe that currently almost 100,000 kids go to schools with old, substandard fire alarm systems? The bond also finishes the job of mitigating the lead paint and asbestos hazards that still remain at over 121 schools that house almost 160,000 kids.
So yes, the school district and we citizens are making up for lost time. This bond allows us and the school district to fulfill a promise that has taken decades to meet. A generation of students did not get the schools they needed and deserved.
That was a crime against the future. It would be another crime to repeat that mistake, and there is absolutely no reason to do so. The school district has shown us that it can and will build the schools once we, the voters, provide the funding.
Decent school facilities serve more than an educational function. Our schools serve as important hubs of community activities. The school district works with the city of Los Angeles and other governmental agencies to place schools in coordination with other community amenities like parks and community centers -- more than 40 joint-use agreements are already in place. In fact, one of the new schools opened this September with an agreement to allow its fields to serve as a community park after hours and on weekends.
More than 8,400 community meetings are held at our schools every month. Community agencies and local civic organizations -- such as local community councils, the registrar of voters, public health agencies, adult schools and youth programs -- all take advantage of our schools as truly public facilities. Schools were used as emergency shelters for the Chatsworth fires. Modern, well-maintained public schools serve the whole community.
Some say the district doesn't do enough joint use or joint planning. The figures belie that notion. The thousands of community meetings, dozens of joint-use agreements and the improved designs of new facilities are doing far more than some are aware of. Besides, you can't do joint use without building the schools in the first place. Let's keep our eye on the ball: These kids need and deserve these schools.
The new schools are designed to be energy efficient, environmentally sustainable and have already received many national design awards. The new schools, by design, average less than half the size of our existing larger schools.
The new leadership of the LAUSD understands inequities regarding education. Overcrowded elementary schools contribute to this inequity. This bond measure is all about addressing such issues.
Obviously, school buildings aren't the whole story when it comes to improving Los Angeles' schools. The district also has made significant strides academically; it still must do much, much more.
But having classroom seats and a positive school environment are a vital part of the picture. We, as a community, can and must fix this by voting for Measure Y in November.
How many of our kids in overcrowded elementary schools saw that student my friends and I saw on TV and think, "I wonder if someone cares about me?" We -- each of us -- must be that 'someone.' We can't let our kids down.
Dr. Stu Bernstein currently serves on the executive board of the Association of Jewish Educators and is a member of the Education Advisory Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He is a former LAUSD teacher and administrator