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As state cuts funding, more districts turn to voters

Parcel taxes are sought to fill school budget gaps in several Southern California cities. Inequity is a concern, experts say, because such proposals tend to occur in wealthy areas.

June 15, 2009|Seema Mehta

Facing multibillion-dollar state funding cuts, school districts across California are asking residents to tax themselves to fund local schools. Parcel taxes -- some topping $2,000 annually per family -- have been proposed this year from Sebastopol to San Marino.

Residents in Palos Verdes, South Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge, Rowland Heights and several other communities are currently voting by mail as their districts grapple with the possibility of teacher layoffs, ballooning class sizes, summer school cancellations and reduced art and music programs.

"It has to pass," said Selena Baydaline, a South Pasadena resident and supporter of that district's Measure S. "The state has squeezed schools dry."

A package of ballot measures that would have extended recent state tax increases failed in May, leaving lawmakers with a huge budget shortfall. But voters have tended to be far more generous when it comes to their neighborhood schools: at least nine local tax proposals have passed in California this year and five have failed.

The largest -- more than $2,000 per parcel -- was approved by voters this month in Piedmont to raise $9 million annually, roughly one-third of that Bay Area district's budget. In May, San Marino voters approved an addition to their existing parcel tax, bringing the total to $1,090 per parcel.

Experts say the abundance of new parcel tax proposals shows the dysfunction of school funding in California and increases educational inequities between wealthy and poor communities.

As a sign of the financial difficulties facing school districts this year, some districts in lower-income areas are considering tapping residents. Rowland Unified, an economically diverse district where half the students receive free- or reduced-price lunches, has proposed a $120 parcel tax for the first time in its 39-year history. And Los Angeles Unified, which comprises poor neighborhoods and wealthy enclaves, may propose a parcel tax in spring 2010, said Supt. Ramon Cortines.

He acknowledged it would be an uphill battle. "It's not always easy, but because it's not easy doesn't mean we shouldn't give it our best try," he said. "We can't just depend on government to provide more."

A parcel tax, if approved by more than two-thirds of voters, is an additional levy on top of the annual property tax, earmarked for a specific local agency such as a school district, fire department or city.

Opponents say residents are already stretched thin by the faltering economy. "Taxes are already too high. I don't support it," Amelia Lomas said as she picked up two grandsons at Arroyo Vista Elementary School in South Pasadena. With the job losses and home foreclosures, she said, people "are barely making it."

Parcel-tax backers say they have little choice but to turn to residents after enduring years of painful state funding cuts, including $7.4 billion this year.

"We fundraise all the time, but when you're talking about such staggering amounts . . . bake sales aren't going to cover that," said Gina Ward, spokeswoman for the Rowland Unified School District.

She and officials from other districts noted that while new revenue would help save programs on the chopping block, it wouldn't come close to making up for the state funding reductions.

As the state struggles to close a $24-billion gap, more reductions are a near certainty. Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget, schools and community colleges would lose $1.6 billion for the school year that ends June 30 and $4.5 billion for next year.

"We have to take matters into our own hands," said Debra Beadle, a South Pasadena resident.

Deborah Lutz, a mother of three, said parcel tax opponents should note that their property values are buoyed by the city's highly regarded schools.

"The reason . . . people moved to this community is because of the schools," she said.

Little formal opposition has emerged in the local debates. But in online message boards, letters to local newspapers and private conversation, some say now is not the time to ask residents to dig deeper.

Tom Davis, a state employee who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, said he is being furloughed two days a month and has cut down on movies, restaurants and household expenses to deal with the 10% dip in his income.

"We're in an economic period where quite a few of us are facing rather difficult economic times," he said, adding that residents are already paying a $209 parcel tax and a bond measure for schools.

The biggest hurdle such proposals face is a state constitutional requirement that parcel taxes must be approved by 66.7% of voters. To increase their chances of success, the proposals usually include sweeteners -- an exemption for seniors, a "self-destruct" mechanism if Sacramento tries to take the money, a ban on using it for administrators' salaries.

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell are pushing to lower the threshold to 55%.

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