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Selling an L.A. parcel tax

A parcel tax may be voted onto the November ballot. If it is, the LAUSD must do what it failed to do with Measure E two years ago: assure the money will be spent wisely.

March 13, 2012
  • John Deasy, Superintendant of LAUSD schools, is seen on Sept. 7, 2011. LAUSD cant afford preschool, adult education, libraries, adequate janitorial services or reasonable class sizes
John Deasy, Superintendant of LAUSD schools, is seen on Sept. 7, 2011. LAUSD… (Los Angeles Times )

The Los Angeles Unified School District isn't in the same financial straits that led it to seek a parcel tax nearly two years ago. No, it's in much worse shape. It can't afford preschool, adult education, libraries, adequate janitorial services or reasonable class sizes.

So even though Measure E, the $100-per-parcel tax it proposed in 2010, didn't come close to the two-thirds majority needed for passage, the district is looking to try again, this time with a tax nearly three times that size. The school board is scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday on whether to place the measure on the November ballot. The $298 tax would be levied annually on each real estate parcel in the district, regardless of its value, raising $255 million a year for five years.

The schools need money. Yet the added expense of nearly $1,500 over five years is a significant sum for many people.

Measure E failed in part because of a marketing campaign that could most kindly be described as lackluster. It didn't help that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa distanced himself from the effort. No doubt there are plans to remedy that this time around.

But there were other shortcomings with the way Measure E was written and presented by then-Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. The Times' editorial board recommended a "no" vote on the measure because it failed to ensure that the money would be spent wisely. If the district wants to ask for an even higher sum, there are several steps it should take before putting the proposal on the ballot to make sure that it deserves broad support:

• Include in the proposal the creation of a citizens oversight committee with powers to view and raise concerns about expenditures before they are made. Measure E contained only a provision for annual audits, and so far, the new one does too. Audits are good for catching misspending only after the fact, when it's too late.

• Write assurances into the measure that the tax rate will be lowered or eliminated if the district's financial picture brightens during the five years it's in effect. Cortines offered his personal assurances that he would call for lowering the Measure E tax if funding improved — and his departure from the district shortly afterward illustrated how meaningless such verbal assurances are.

• Provide reasonably detailed information about crucial personnel and programs that would be funded by the tax. In Measure E, a small amount was targeted for reducing class sizes, a core educational priority. Much larger amounts would have been spent on fully restoring elementary school arts programs that had been reduced and given to individual schools for unspecified expenses; the district never made a compelling case for these. Schools need flexibility, of course, but to win a two-thirds majority, the district will need to do a good job of convincing voters that their $1,500 would be well spent on necessities.

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