The San Diego Unified school board decided tonight to put a temporary parcel tax on the November ballot, giving voters across the vast district the power to approve or turn down an estimated $50 million annually for local schools over the next five years.

Without the tax, the school district is predicting $127 million in cuts for the next school year. It has already cut more than $370 million from its day-to-day budget in the last four years.

Federal stimulus money that helped it spare jobs for teachers will soon disappear. It has tentatively proposed eliminating librarians and counselors, halving the school day for kindergartners and other cuts.

Board member Katherine Nakamura was exasperated with critics who said the school district could go without the tax and just target waste instead. “If they’re so damned good at math,” she said, “maybe they should tell us how this district can go without a half billion dollars and not affect children.”

If the parcel tax passes, the money would lessen, not eliminate, the cuts. It would add $150 per student for each school budget, including charter schools; keep classes as small as possible in the early grades; pay for training for science and math teachers and those who help children with English; and help maintain classroom technology.

The tax will face a fight: While teachers and parents are expected to push for the tax to save beloved programs and keep classes small, it will also face critics who say the school board hasn’t pushed its labor unions hard enough for cuts before turning to taxpayers.

Those arguments erupted in the auditorium as the school board listened to parents, teachers and business leaders. Advocates argued that a tax that comes out to roughly eight dollars a month for homeowners was worthwhile and would save crucial services in schools. Kimberly Carpender, who teaches science and math to students with disabilities at Bell Middle School, said a tax would help restore basic supplies like books and animal specimens for dissections.

Opponents like anti-labor activist Eric Christen derided the board for approving a labor pact on its school renovation bond, saying it was “clearly not a board that deserves one more dime of taxpayer dollars.”

Other skeptics questioned whether agreements with labor unions would simply force the school district to spend the parcel tax on canceling worker furloughs. School board President Richard Barrera said the pacts only require cuts to be canceled if the school district gets more money overall than last school year — something that isn’t expected to happen even if the tax passes.

The tax must get two-thirds of voters to pass, a markedly higher threshold than the school district needed to pass the recent bond for renovating school facilities. School districts that pass them tend to be small, affluent and in Northern California — none of which describe San Diego Unified.

Different properties would be charged different amounts: Single family homes would pay $98 a year while apartments and condominiums would pay $60 per unit. Commercial and industrial buildings would be charged $450 no matter their size — a change from the original proposal for a sliding scale based on nonresidential buildings’ square footage. (That would have yielded nearly $8 million more annually.)

Parcel taxes are one of the few options open to school district to raise local revenues. Under California law, school districts cannot legally levy more progressive taxes that depend on the assessed value of properties. The only other way they can levy local taxes is to partner with counties to pass sales taxes.

The board voted 4-to-0 in favor of the tax. Board member Shelia Jackson was absent when the vote was taken.

— EMILY ALPERT

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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