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.
California 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.
(See a database of funds requested and received by California schools under the Emergency Repair Program.)
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 Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties, 96 schools are waiting for more than $12.8 million in emergency repair funding that the state has approved but not yet paid. The state owes more than $1 million each to Orosi High and Woodlake High.
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."
Every year starting in the 2005-06 fiscal year, the state was supposed to put at least $100 million into the Emergency Repair Program using leftover education funds; 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.
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