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Monday, May 19, 2008 | A proposal to lasso more funding for San Diego schools would likely cost the average homeowner less than a proposed $1.51 billion bond slated for the same November ballot. It could be used to meet a wider range of school needs, including salaries for teachers, than a bond limited to paying for facilities.

Yet experts say the tax is likely to face stiffer opposition at the ballot box than the proposed bond, if for no other reason than its name.

Schools want both. The question is whether San Diego voters, in the midst of an economic downturn, can stomach a new bond, a new tax, or both. With school funding a hot-button issue statewide, the two measures could be on a collision course for the November ballot. And, despite its merits, there already exists some skepticism for the parcel tax’s prospects because of its name alone.

“The name ‘parcel tax’ sounds like a knife to my throat. It sounds ancient and archaic and punitive,” said Scott Barnett, a former Republican political consultant and president of TaxpayersAdvocate.org. “Whereas ‘general obligation bonds’ — what the hell does that mean? It doesn’t sound like a tax increase.”

Unlike the bond, the tax must win a daunting two-thirds vote to pass. It must assure voters leery of ponying up for intangibles at schools who prefer to see concrete buildings erected and fixed. And it must overcome the objections to charging all homeowners — rich or poor — the same cost.

The proposed parcel tax would impose a flat per-parcel fee on property owners in the San Diego Unified School District. Details are still being determined. How much homeowners would pay is uncertain; trustee John de Beck touts that a $97.50 yearly tax could yield almost $30 million. Seniors and the disabled would be exempted.

Meanwhile, San Diego Unified is also crafting a facilities bond to succeed Proposition MM, a $1.51 billion bond that charges property owners up to $95.75 per $100,000 of assessed value, for the November ballot. Though de Beck supports both the bond and the tax, he believes the tax addresses a more fundamental issue for San Diego Unified: the roller-coaster budgets imposed by the state.

While the funds would arrive too late to prevent cutbacks planned for next school year, the dollars could protect San Diego Unified in the future. State budget shortfalls are expected for years to come.

“If I was given a choice between the bond issue and the parcel tax, I’d go for the parcel tax in a minute,” de Beck said. The district’s facilities needs are great, he said, but the need for ongoing funding for operations is greater.

Whether the tax and the bond can coexist politically is being debated. Frustration with teacher layoffs amid a statewide budget crisis could help San Diego Unified sell the paired proposals as a complete package: Money for school buildings, and for the employees inside them, said Larry Remer, a Democratic political consultant helping to campaign for the bond.

But putting both before taxpayers at once is “political gravity,” argued Barnett.

“If you put both on the same ballot, they’re both going to crash,” he said.

Since 1983, four school parcel taxes have been attempted in San Diego County and all have failed, according to the nonpartisan policy group EdSource. The vast majority of successful parcel taxes have been in Northern California, but exceptions exist: Three Los Angeles County districts levied new parcel taxes in 2007.

Statewide, school bonds have been more successful with voters than school parcel taxes. According to EdSource’s data, 63 percent of bonds have passed, compared to only 52 percent of parcel taxes. Lower voting thresholds have helped bonds, which can pass at a 55 percent threshold if school districts agree to extra accountability provisions.

San Diego Unified’s new bond would require only 55 percent approval.

The steep two-thirds bar for parcel taxes “pretty well kills that, as far as I’m concerned,” said Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus at San Diego State University.

Based on estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of voters reject any new taxation on its face, Barnett said a two-thirds threshold means convincing almost every voter who might raise taxes. Democratic consultant Remer disagreed, pointing to Proposition MM’s garnering of 78 percent of the vote.

Parcel taxes are both blessed and cursed by their flexibility. While bonds are earmarked for fixing and building facilities, parcel taxes can be spent on anything. That freedom is a selling point for some voters, who want to see teachers spared from budget cuts, music and art programs preserved, and schools kept safe and clean. But it also unsettles voters who distrust paying for improvements they can’t see, Sparrow said.

“People like to see buildings. Things. Edifices. Something they can touch and feel,” Sparrow said. “If you put money into a reading program, how long will that keep it going? You have to pay for it over and over again.”

To guard against misspending — or the perception of it — San Diego Unified has tentatively proposed earmarking the tax for specific purposes, such as teacher training and keeping libraries staffed, and creating an advisory committee to oversee the tax. Similar oversight existed for Proposition MM, and is planned for the upcoming bond.

The planned bond enjoys another advantage over the tax: While it’s more expensive for the average homeowner than the amount floated for the parcel tax, San Diego Unified expects that voters won’t see their bills rise if the bond passes. The district is calculating the bond’s size to avoid increasing tax rates imposed by Proposition MM, and billing the new bond as an extension of an existing levy, rather than a new cost. Therefore, even though the average homeowner pays significantly more annually to Proposition MM than they would pay under a proposed $97.50 tax, only the parcel tax would be perceived as a change in taxation.

Others object to a parcel tax as inequitable. Unlike a bond, which imposes different costs depending on property value, all parcel owners would pay the same fee. State law limits the alternatives for San Diego Unified. Schools can’t raise local property taxes based on the property’s value.

“The same amount is charged, whether you’re in La Jolla or southeast San Diego,” said school board candidate John Lee Evans, a Democrat running to replace incumbent Mitz Lee.

She is interested in exploring the idea, but wants more information before deciding whether to support it. Evans is likewise withholding judgment on the tax, which he says needs more study.

Weighing the bond and the tax, 3rd grade teacher Jeralyn Treas said they’re “both essential.”

“We can’t do our jobs without proper facilities,” said Treas, who was warned in March that she could lose her job at Webster Elementary School. “But we also can’t do our jobs without the people and materials we need.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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