It's hard to say no to schools that have been forced to lay off teachers and shorten the academic year. But these days, it's equally hard for many homeowners to pay an extra $100 a year in taxes.
Almost a year ago, we laid out our concerns about the possibility of a parcel tax for the Los Angeles Unified School District, especially after the school board placed a bond measure on the November 2008 ballot asking for — and receiving — billions of dollars more than it needed to build and refurbish schools. None of that money can be used for actual operation of the schools. To remedy that situation, the district has placed another tax proposal on the June ballot, Measure E, which would raise $92.5 million a year for four years by taxing each parcel of land in the district $100 a year. But few of those earlier concerns have been adequately addressed. We recommend a no vote on Measure E.
With the district in such tight circumstances, we had expected most of the proposed tax revenue to be devoted to staffing up in key academic areas. But only $10 million of the more than $90 million would go toward hiring or retaining teachers in core subjects — all of those at the high school level. Substantially more money — $15 million — would be spent to fully restore art and music programs in elementary schools, which have been cut by half. The single biggest share, nearly $27 million, would go to the schools themselves to spend on whatever they consider most important. That could mean retaining teachers or library aides or field trips.
We appreciate the value of empowering individual schools, but not with a parcel tax born of dire straits. The academic needs and priorities at each school should be so clear that the public and district managers know in advance exactly how that money would be spent. And as much as we support art and music education, full restoration of this program strikes us as a lower priority.
Too little accountability has been built into Measure E. Parcel-tax measures for other schools — including those in Pasadena and South Pasadena — have been written to include citizens oversight committees to keep a careful eye on the money flow. L.A. Unified's measure calls only for annual audits. Those would inform the public about how the money has been spent but would do little to ensure that future budgeting decisions are sound. Supt. Ramon C. Cortines says he is determined to form such a committee, and we believe him, but in the absence of such language in the measure, his assurances are not enough.
Similarly, Cortines vows to recommend lowering the parcel tax should the district's finances improve. But nothing in the measure would require such a step. Even if Cortines could persuade the board to lower the tax, he has made it clear that he does not intend to remain in his job throughout the four years the tax is in effect.
These issues might provoke less concern, given the genuine need at public schools, if Los Angeles Unified had a solid history of wise stewardship and a prudent school board known for putting student interests first. That's not the case. Meanwhile, the district and its unions have not made the changes that would justify asking taxpayers to give more in hard times. Those include streamlined procedures for disciplining low-performing teachers; a move toward more sustainable pension obligations; a lower-cost system for repair and maintenance at schools than the current in-district shops that pay above prevailing wage; and fairer layoff procedures to ensure that hard-to-staff schools such as Markham Middle School aren't left with rotating substitute teachers through much of the year.
To his credit, Cortines has made substantial — even dramatic — cuts in administrative overhead. He has steered the district carefully along the current financial shoals. Sadly, these accomplishments are overshadowed by the antics of a dysfunctional school board majority and the district's history of spending resources poorly. Things have reached the point where Los Angeles Unified must prove it is doing better before it can earn the taxpayers' trust — and more of their money.