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Few Answering Schools' Plea for Tax Checks

December 06, 1987|ELAINE WOO | Times Education Writer

Back in May, during yet another battle between state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig and Gov. George Deukmejian over money for education, the schools chief challenged taxpayers to give up "the short-term gratification of a night on the town or a few cartons of cigarettes" that a state income tax rebate might buy and let public schools have the money instead.

Now that individual rebate checks are finally going out in the mail, school districts around the state have begun their pitches for the checks, sending notes home to parents, advertising in local newspapers and mobilizing PTA phone trees to solicit the money. In San Francisco, a radio station has broadcast daily appeals for the refunds, promising to turn them over to Bay Area schools.

But an informal sampling by The Times of some Southern California school districts shows that only a trickle of the $30 million that has gone to taxpayers since Nov. 1 has ended up with the schools.

For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest, has received about 90 small checks totaling $3,973. Beverly Hills, which is pushing to raise $100,000, has done somewhat better, netting $7,000 as of Friday. In Orange County, the Orange Unified School District has received less than 20 checks, a total of $650. Laguna Beach Unified as of Friday had received none--despite a "phonathon" and newspaper advertisement.

Spending Limit

A total of $1.1 billion will be refunded to taxpayers by Jan. 15. The rebate was the result of the Gann initiative, which placed a limit on state spending and said that revenues left over should be returned to taxpayers.

Taxpayers who have signed over their checks have indicated strong--and quite specific--reasons for doing so.

"What kind of idiot Legislature and governor would vote on returning money to Californians instead of putting it into our school system?" wrote a Hollywood woman, who said she has no children, in a letter accompanying the $32 check she returned to the state controller's office in Sacramento. "I for one would gladly refund my refund to you to put towards improving our lousy school system."

Another Los Angeles woman wrote on the back of her $32.53 check, endorsed to the Los Angeles district: "I am very sorry the governor didn't give the money to education where so much is needed."

A Beverly Hills man who gave his $64 check to the Los Angeles district said he wanted the money to be spent on "teaching English to immigrants or geography to elementary school children." Two donors to the Irvine Unified School District designated $20 for science instruction and $44 for textbooks. That district has received a total of $1,486.

No-Win Situation

Some districts have received little or no money, however, in part because they have not asked for it. Other school administrators see the rebate program as a no-win situation.

"If we get a lot of checks or we get no checks . . . the schools lose," said Supt. J. Michael McGrath of the Newhall School District, where five checks totaling $160 have come in, even though officials have not encouraged donations. "It's much like the lottery," which school officials say has given the public the false impression that schools are rolling in money.

"People will say, 'You've got all those rebates. You don't need much money.' Then if very little comes in, the governor's supporters will say they were right all along, that parents don't think the schools need the money," he said.

A rebate donation drive "could become an awful test of popularity," said Michael Fallon, a spokesman for the California School Boards Assn., explaining why some districts have been reluctant to mount campaigns for the funds.

But officials in districts that have garnered rebate money say they welcome more checks, and they expect larger amounts to flow in before the end of the year.

As of last week, only half of the 12 million rebate checks had been issued, mainly smaller checks to lower-income people, according to state Controller Gray Davis' office. Legislation signed by the governor in September provided for a rebate of $32 to $118 for single people and $64 to $272 for couples.

"We figure that most of the donations will come from those people who can better afford it and they, by and large, haven't received their rebate checks yet," said Norma Trost, a spokeswoman for the 116,000-student San Diego Unified School District, where only a handful of checks have been turned in.

Federal Taxes

The rebate checks are subject to federal income taxes, though not to state income taxes. Donations are deductible from both federal and state taxes for people who itemize deductions, according to the state controller's office.

Some taxpayers interviewed by The Times were not aware of efforts to collect rebate donations for the schools but said they probably would not have turned over their checks anyway.

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