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School levy failure highlights challenges for big districts

Rowland Unified gained a majority of votes but couldn't get the required 75% of support. Experts say larger districts like L.A or Long Beach could have trouble reaching that level as well.

July 02, 2009|Seema Mehta

Many wealthy communities across Southern California have recently passed parcel taxes to help their beleaguered schools. But the defeat this week of a similar levy in a less affluent, larger school district in the San Gabriel Valley offers a look at the challenges that could face parcel tax proposals in big-city school systems in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Nearly 52% of voters in the Rowland Unified School District supported the $120-per-parcel levy, well short of the two-thirds voter approval required to pass such taxes. A parcel tax is a levy on top of the annual property tax, earmarked for a local agency such as a school district.

"I was upset, of course. Disappointed," Rowland Supt. Maria Ott said after the district announced the defeat. The 17,500-student district must make $13 million in cuts for the coming school year because of the state budget crisis. The tax would have raised $2.5 million annually for five years, helping to preserve elementary music classes, college counselors and other programs.

Ott said the district's relatively large size made it more difficult to win passage of the tax.

"It's a hard, hard road to hoe in terms of getting that message to everyone in your community, to . . . folks who don't directly know your schools," she said.

As school districts struggle with state funding cuts, they increasingly are turning to local residents for help. Although California voters rejected a package of state tax increases in May, they have been more generous with their neighborhood schools. At least 12 parcel taxes have passed this year, with six failing.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and school district officials say a major hurdle for any district, but particularly large and economically diverse districts, is the two-thirds bar required for passage. Opponents say it provides vital protection for taxpayers. Legislation has been unsuccessfully introduced several times to allow voters to decide whether to lower the threshold to 55%.

In Southern California, smaller, more affluent districts, including San Marino, Palos Verdes and South Pasadena, have managed to reach the two-thirds threshold, recently passing parcel taxes. And nearly 75% of voters in the La Canada Unified School District approved a $150-per-parcel tax this week, at the same time Rowland Unified voters were defeating theirs.

Brett Barnard, chairman of Preserve South Pasadena Schools, which successfully pushed a $288-per-parcel tax last month, said he believed his district's small size mattered more than its affluence in determining passage.

"There is a real community cohesion," Bernard said, noting that South Pasadena has one high school. "You get into a district like L.A. Unified, I can't imagine that."

In a June interview, Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon Cortines acknowledged that the sprawling district would face an uphill battle in passing a special levy.

"It's not always easy, but because it's not easy doesn't mean we shouldn't it give it our best try," said Cortines, who hopes to float a parcel tax next year. "I guess I am hopeful because I think that whether it's the middle class or the rich or the poor, they all understand the importance of education."

The Long Beach Unified School District is surveying residents about whether they would support a parcel tax. Spokesman Chris Eftychiou noted that more than 70% of voters approved the two bond measures the district had sought in the last decade.

"I would caution against drawing conclusions about one school district from another based simply on demographics," he said. "The Long Beach community has traditionally been very supportive of their local schools, and this school district has not gone to the well nearly as often as other school districts."

Rowland Unified's Ott, who was a senior deputy at Los Angeles Unified for five years before moving to her current position in 2005, advised large districts to carefully craft their proposals to fund programs that the community wants most. She also urged them to focus heavily on outreach to voters who have no children.

"I do think it's a greater challenge for large districts, especially when the majority of voters are not parents," she said. "That's who you've got to reach."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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