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Faced with another year of budget cuts, San Diego Unified may ask voters to shoulder a new temporary tax to help keep classes small. If it does, the school district will face its toughest challenge at the ballot box in more than a decade.
While the school district handily passed a construction and renovation bond in 2008 to repair schools and install new technology, a parcel tax that can be used for teachers and other day-to-day costs has to pass a steeper bar, getting two-thirds of voters instead of the 55 percent needed for a bond.
That has made the flat per-parcel-taxes much less likely to pass statewide than bonds: None have passed in school districts in San Diego County. Smaller, more affluent districts tend to have better luck. The two school systems most commonly compared to San Diego Unified, Los Angeles and Long Beach, both failed to pass parcel taxes in recent years.
And that isn’t the only hurdle. While builders lined up to help pass the school renovation bond, the business community is less likely to back this tax. Critics argue that the school board majority, which has strong backing from labor unions, shouldn’t be trusted with new money. Other taxes from the city could be on the ballot, which could end up overwhelming or splitting voters unsure about how many new taxes they want. The sour economy doesn’t help.
“The odds are against them,” said political consultant Tom Shepard, who has been advising an informal group of philanthropists and business leaders concerned about how the school district is governed.
Backers know it won’t be easy. Consultant Larry Remer is planning to raise $1.5 million for the parcel tax campaign, about $600,000 more than was raised for the bond. But Remer is optimistic and so is much of the school board. They are relying on polls from Remer, which he said show the proposed tax faring better than the earlier bond, which won with nearly 69 percent of the vote.
The selling point for the parcel tax is simple, Remer said: The schools need more money to avoid deep cuts. Unlike the bond, which can only be spent on building repairs and technology, the tax can help save beloved programs and teachers that have been threatened with the budget axe.
“This is about avoiding disaster,” said school board President Richard Barrera.
San Diego Unified is bracing for $127 million in projected cuts for the next school year after cutting more than $370 million from its day-to-day budget in the last four years. It has tentatively proposed a long list of budget reductions, from eliminating librarians and counselors to halving the school day for kindergartners. More than 1,400 employees — roughly one out of every ten school district employees — would lose their jobs if those cuts become a reality.
Even if the proposed tax passes, it wouldn’t completely plug the school district budget gap. The tax would net an estimated $58 million annually for five years. The money would add $150 per student for each school budget, keep classes as small as possible in the early grades, train middle and high school science and math teachers, and maintain classroom technology.
Different properties would be charged different amounts: Single family homes would pay $98 a year, apartments and condominiums would pay $60 per unit, and commercial and industrial parcels would pay between $450 and $25,000 a year depending on their buildings’ square footage.
Such a sliding scale is relatively rare and has been controversial elsewhere in the state: John Hartenstein, a San Francisco-based attorney who’s an expert on school finance, said there’s no legal consensus on whether it’s allowed.
Parcel taxes are one of the few ways school districts can raise local revenue to cover day-to-day costs such as teachers and counselors after the passage of Proposition 13, which set strict limits on local taxation. School board member Katherine Nakamura said the new tax is a desperately needed form of local control to protect schools that have been repeatedly cut by the state.
“We’re going to be down half a billion dollars,” Nakamura said. “We don’t have a spending problem. We have a revenue problem. This is the most realistic thing we can do.”
Providing a local buffer against state cuts also appeals to parents who have already been paying for copying paper and other school supplies that schools can no longer afford.
“It was a pretty easy decision,” said Laura Schumacher, president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs, whose executive board supports putting the tax on the ballot. “Whether you agree with everything the school district is doing, the bottom line is we have to support the kids.”
The teachers union has also backed the idea. While the union also backed the earlier bond, it wasn’t heavily involved in that campaign. Now, under a more sympathetic board, teachers are more likely to pour time and energy into convincing voters to agree to the tax.
But the school district can’t count on all of the same supporters who backed the bond. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association, for instance, seems unlikely to support it. Its president and CEO, Lani Lutar, said the school board hasn’t pushed labor unions hard enough for cuts. Teachers and other workers are taking five furlough days next year and the year after, but Lutar said salaries could’ve been frozen entirely to save more.
Lutar also said the proposal doesn’t guarantee the school district wouldn’t just cut back on other funding, using the tax to replace classroom money rather than add to it. Remer called that a red herring and countered that a required oversight committee would scrutinize the money.
The parcel tax oversight committee, however, would not need to follow the same specific guidelines as a similar bond oversight committee, which falls under a California law that sets stricter oversight rules.
Other critics are leery of the new direction for San Diego Unified, which has avoided federal reform efforts that are unpopular with unions, such as linking teacher evaluations to test scores or paying teachers more to work in disadvantaged schools. Its new superintendent, Bill Kowba, backs a more grassroots, decentralized idea of school reform that opponents argue means no reform at all.
“We’re doling money out blindly to schools without any kind of data,” said Matt Spathas, a business leader who helped lead the campaign to pass the renovation bond. He’s not sure if he will back the tax.
The bond had critics too, but they did little more than build a website. Tax foes say this time around, they will try to lump the school effort into a larger campaign against city taxes.
And San Diego Unified can’t count on the same turnout that helped the bond succeed. Young voters who helped elect Barack Obama as president were also likely to approve school renovation money. Remer expects voter turnout this November to favor the school tax, but not as much as when the bond passed.
The school board will hold a public hearing on the proposed parcel tax on Tuesday before deciding whether to put it on the November ballot.