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Irvine's Creative Schools Fee

May 11, 2003

Most cities don't have an Irvine Co., a giant landowner that can make or break an election based on property ownership. But people in every city should be able to understand what the Irvine Co. clearly knows. Good schools are a great investment.

Taxpayer groups claim that the Irvine school district's successful bid last week to generate badly needed revenue by assessing residents for their recreational use of school facilities didn't represent the will of voters because only property owners cast ballots. The higher the value of their property, the more their votes counted, but the higher their assessment will be and the more they will pay.

Thus it's hard to fathom the complaint by the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. that this put the vote into the "hands of the wealthy landowners" such as the Irvine Co.

Actually, the vote makes perfect sense, since the Irvine Co., which counted for 23% of the votes with its vast land holdings, will pay the most by far.

In major ways, Californians have pushed in recent years for spending more public money on schools. Proposition 98, which mandated a certain portion of the state budget for education, was a start. Then came Proposition 39, which lowered the threshold for passing school bonds from 66.7% to 55%. Even though these and other measures have led to increased per-pupil spending, California still ranks in the bottom half nationwide. New York spends more than $11,000 per student. A report last year found that Laguna Beach spent more than any other Orange County district: $7,400 per student. Much of that district's spending is now threatened by the governor's proposed cuts to basic-aid districts, which get almost all of their budget from local property taxes.

Irvine schools have long been underfunded by an outmoded state formula for calculating per-student funding. But neither Irvine nor any other school district can look to Sacramento for help right now, even to keep what they've had.

Previous efforts to raise money to keep Irvine's admired and enriched programs fell short of the required approval of two-thirds of voters. And even though Proposition 39 helped many school districts in California, Irvine schools didn't need a bond measure to pay for campus construction. They needed money for the teaching on those campuses.

So Irvine got creative. It called for the vote, which requires a simple majority, to assess property owners for the added benefit of having campuses that are used by everyone from soccer groups to early-morning joggers. The money has to be used for equipment and maintenance that benefits the public, but that frees up a few million dollars for education.

As school districts struggle to preserve gains in student achievement, they are sure to watch closely whether anti-tax groups challenge the Irvine vote and how such a challenge might fare in court. Schools shouldn't have to look at such roundabout ways to keep operating. But given the arcane rules that govern school funding, good for them for using every means possible.

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