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L.A. Unified and the price of school money

Before school district officials put a parcel tax on the ballot, they must show they'll change their ways.

July 11, 2009

Our sympathies are with the children. As schools bend to the task of cutting teachers and programs, we wince at the thought of students lost academically in a class of 35 to 40, or unable to sign up for a summer school course, or making do with a shabby, outdated textbook. At the same time, few of us are in the financial position these days to shell out extra cash, and if we do, we want assurances that we're getting value for our money.

Caught in this conundrum is the Los Angeles Unified School District, a school system that has been notoriously inefficient and political in its use of money, but that nonetheless is in danger of losing recent academic gains as it excises more than $1 billion from its budget over the next couple of years. Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is asking the school board to place a parcel tax on the ballot to help pay for day-to-day operations. At this point, the amount of the tax is undetermined, as are details about how it would be spent. But if the district's leaders want voters to invest more money in the schools, they have a lot of explaining to do first.

The board displayed a dismaying lack of regard for the public's dollars in November when it placed a $7-billion bond measure on the ballot, more than twice as much money as it needed to build new schools and refurbish old classrooms. Billions of dollars of the bonds weren't earmarked for any particular projects, but rather created a slush fund for future expenditures in a district that is losing enrollment.

None of that money can be used for teachers, textbooks or educational programs, all of which were short of funds even before California's disastrous crash. The reasons for the bond measure's over-inflated size had little to do with real need and much to do with polls that showed once voters were considering billions of dollars, they didn't seem to differentiate between a couple of billion or an amount two or three times that.

This page advised the board to split the sum between two measures, a bond issue for construction and a parcel tax for educational programs and personnel. Instead, the board went the politically expedient route -- a bond measure is much easier to pass, with a 55% majority instead of the two-thirds needed for a tax -- and ended up with more money than it knows what to do with for building beautiful facilities, but too little money to staff even the schools it has.

If the board goes to voters again pleading its case for more money, it will face a markedly changed electorate from November's, when Barack Obama's presidential campaign brought a sense of optimism to election day. That electorate approved $7 billion for local schools, but since then many voters have fallen on harder times and resent any mention of higher taxes. Moreover, the bond measure didn't actually increase property taxes, instead spreading the payments over a much longer span of years. A parcel tax would impose higher payments at a time when homeowners are less able to afford them than they have been in decades.

And yet voters in the district have repeatedly shown that they care about students and schools. That gives district leaders a chance to convince those voters that a new tax is necessary and would be wisely spent. They will probably try to do that in the most convenient way, with a heart-tugging campaign about lost summer-school and preschool classes. It's "about the children," the mailers will say, even though L.A. Unified tends to operate more for the benefit of bureaucrats and unions.

Here's an alternative: Those same leaders could use the schools' current hardship as an opportunity to reexamine and reinvent the district's role in educating children. Cortines and the board could start by reimagining the relationship between United Teachers Los Angeles, whose members would be the most obvious beneficiaries of a parcel tax, and the needs of students.

It would be shameful if new money were poured into a continuation of the district's old, unsustainable pension commitment, overly expensive medical plans, restrictive work rules and a contract that makes it nearly impossible to discipline bad teachers. A parcel-tax proposal should spell out new restrictions on how this money should be used -- perhaps, for example, on merit pay rather than step increases. This would require a new political courage from the board.

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