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In his effort to eliminate redevelopment in California, Gov. Jerry Brown has pitted developers against schools. He’s argued that the state doesn’t have enough money to subsidize both, and as it stands, his plan directs billions of would-be redevelopment dollars to education.

Yet few local school districts have rallied for redevelopment’s demise. Ask school systems from San Diego to Coronado to Los Angeles about the idea and they tend to be cautious or silent — hardly the reaction you might expect for one key part of a plan to lessen budget cuts at schools statewide.

“It’s been tepid,” said Stephen Rhoads, a lobbyist and consultant for Strategic Education Services, a Sacramento firm that works with school districts across the state. “And they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

Schools’ reluctance to aggressively back the proposal stems from confusion over how the state funds education and subsidizes development, murkiness on how exactly ending redevelopment would work and a lack of trust in the state to follow through on its plans.

That reluctance has cost the controversial plan to axe redevelopment the moral force that an outpouring of kids, parents and teachers can provide — something Brown is banking on to advance his idea that redevelopment comes at schools’ expense. But if the fears that have held school districts back from vigorously endorsing the plan are real, it supports claims that the governor is merely using children to sell his budget.

San Diego Unified hasn’t called to end redevelopment, even as it has tried to capitalize on the statewide debate that has weighed schools against it. Last week, school board president Richard Barrera asked the city to advance the schools $64 million from future downtown redevelopment funds to reduce its estimated $120 million deficit. Helping schools could be a selling point to save redevelopment, Barrera said.

Throngs of education supporters packed San Diego City Council chambers Monday when Barrera made his plea, one show of the power that schools can muster. But Barrera and other school backers have been much less bullish on ending redevelopment, saying they’re still analyzing its effects. As of now, San Diego Unified is not planning any public stand on the governor’s plan.

“The only hesitation for us coming out and supporting the governor’s proposal is we don’t know exactly the ways it might help and by how much,” Barrera said.

Other districts around the state aren’t willing even to go as far as Barrera. Los Angeles Unified, for instance, has waffled on the governor’s plan, questioning whether the state will make good on its promises. And in Coronado, where redevelopment is being scrutinized by the state, the superintendent says he’ll back what the city wants.

Confusion over the complicated funding structures for both schools and redevelopment is driving some of the uncertainty.

Property taxes pay for basic school funding. Right now, redevelopment siphons off some of those taxes. When that happens, California is supposed to step up to ensure schools still get their basic funding.

That means that schools don’t lose money directly to redevelopment, though it does cost the state. Redevelopment agencies have also struck agreements with schools to pass along some of their money.

The governor is proposing to abolish redevelopment agencies, splitting the tax money they would ordinarily receive among school districts, cities, counties and other entities. School districts that were getting money directly from the redevelopment agencies would continue to get their same share.

The plan drawn up by the governor offers one big boon to schools: Money reallocated from redevelopment would be the cherry on top of their basic funding. The state Department of Finance estimates that in the second year of the plan, schools statewide would get $1 billion in extra funds.

“The bottom line is it’s going to benefit schools,” said Rick Pratt, assistant executive director for the California School Boards Association.

State education heavyweights such as the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Association have lined up to support the plan. Education consultants in Sacramento have touted the statewide benefits of ending redevelopment, estimating that schools would get an added $160 per student starting next July and as much as $350 more per student in the future.

But redevelopment boosters argue that ending the system would limit economic development and slow the growth that feeds schools with new tax revenues. They contend that the governor could save both redevelopment and schools by cutting elsewhere. They say Brown is setting up a false choice between developers and schools.

Even the plan’s backers can see why local schools might be uneasy. Next year, for example, Brown wants redevelopment dollars to plug the state deficit, not go directly to schools.

And competing plans could provide less of a boost. For instance, the state legislative analyst wants the redevelopment money to go into basic funding for schools, instead of being a bonus.

“There’s a long history of any time we get any more property tax revenues, the state simply reduces its support for us, dollar for dollar,” said Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. His group backs the proposal to end redevelopment.

Here in San Diego, the city has added to the confusion over the plan. Mayor Jerry Sanders has said at least twice that schools wouldn’t get any more money if redevelopment were eliminated, calling that argument “one of the great fallacies” of the proposal. Told that both the Department of Finance and the state legislative analyst say that assertion is incorrect, Sanders said he hadn’t seen any analysis of the plan that shows schools would receive additional funds.

While schools will receive more money, the benefits could be different for each individual district. It depends on how the money is divvied up in the future and how much each district now gets from redevelopment.

“Even if they believe there would be no harm, they can’t figure out if there’s a benefit,” said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, a company that advises school districts. His group has advised school districts to stay on the political sidelines until the deal is worked out.

“When the bill is actually written, Lord knows what this 120-headed monster known as the legislature will stick in it,” Bennett added. “And if you won’t get anything, all you’re going to do is make your mayor mad.”

Emily Alpert and Liam Dillon enjoyed working together on this story. You can contact us at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or call us at the office at 619.325.0525.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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