The Taj Mahal in the LAUSD

The most recent session of the California Legislature gives new meaning to the cliché “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” It is horribly frustrating to see how the liberal majority chooses to focus on the minor and mundane instead of issues that really matter. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the budget, address pressing infrastructure needs and tackle fraud in our welfare programs rather than banning plastic bags or creating another meaningless commission?

Meanwhile, our education system continues to deteriorate rapidly. Over 50 percent of California’s minority high school boys are dropping out, only 60 cents of every dollar makes it into the classroom and there is a complete lack of oversight, transparency and accountability. On top of the fact that it consumes half the general fund, shouldn’t repairing a broken education system be a top priority of this Legislature? Doing so would not only help bridge our enormous $19 billion budget gap, but would also allow Californians to get more from their education tax dollars. Unfortunately, the legislative majority continues to turn a blind eye to vast amounts of waste in our education system.

The latest, most egregious, misuse of education dollars has taken place, not surprisingly, in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The opulent Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools cluster, which opened last week on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, cost taxpayers $578 million (over half a billion) to build. That works out to more than $150,000 per student.

This “campus,” serving students from Kindergarten through 12th grade, is not your typical little red brick school house. It features an exotic futuristic design that has observers wondering if it is actually Star Fleet Academy. Undoubtedly, it will appear in architecture magazines and will probably win all kinds of awards from society’s elites (although certainly not from taxpayers). Adding insult to injury, LAUSD has another school which costs another third of a billion dollars.

Demonstrating the arrogance that leads to this incredible misuse of taxpayers’ dollars, the LAUSD was only willing to send one representative to an informational meeting of the Senate Education Committee to answer the many serious questions lawmakers and others had about their outrageous spending. Taxpayers have had enough. And if they were doing their jobs, our elected officials would finally get tough with those who flagrantly abuse their control of taxpayers’ funds. We are calling for a grand jury audit of this colossal waste. Taxpayers have a right to know how many well-constructed campuses could have been built with the money spent on just one school that is a monument to the collective egos of LAUSD bureaucrats.

A major step toward guaranteeing accountability from school officials is Senate Bill 1473. Introduced by Sen. Mark Wyland and sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the measure is awaiting the Governor’s signature. This legislation would ensure that education bond dollars are being spent as wisely as possible by requiring that school districts observe the federal auditing standards for school construction bond funds.

Oversight, auditing and accountability are among the most important components of good government, but surprisingly, these fundamentals are seldom addressed by the Legislature. By having specific requirements by which school construction bond dollars are audited, we would ensure that valuable bond dollars would be spent efficiently on building projects that provide the greatest benefit to both taxpayers and our children in the classroom. These audits will serve as an early warning system that will stop wasteful projects like the LAUSD’s Taj Mahal before major funding is committed. And if we applied the same type of auditing structure found in SB 1473 to all of our state programs, we would take a major step toward finding the billions of dollars in savings our state desperately needs.

Mark Wyland is a California State Senator representing cities in North San Diego County and South Orange County, and a former school board member. Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.