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In a stunning switch, school board President Richard Barrera decided to forge ahead with a proposed parcel tax that even backers say is an uphill slog, less than a day after he said it was a lost cause. The whirlwind back-and-forth over the tax perplexed onlookers and parents who followed it.

“Amateur hour at San Diego Unified School District. Is this a homeowners association or a school board?” joked school board candidate Scott Barnett, when told about the switch.

The San Diego Unified school board decided to put the school tax on the November ballot two weeks ago, despite critics’ crowing that it couldn’t pass. Barrera was one of its biggest champions, arguing that parents and teachers would mobilize to pass it. But on Monday, Barrera said he had become convinced that it couldn’t pass and would end up wasting time for those same parents and teachers.

Barrera abruptly changed his mind today, speaking up for the tax at the very same meeting where he was scheduled to ask the rest of the school board to do away with it. He said that he still believed that passing the tax would be difficult — and that he had probably made it worse by “flip-flopping.”

“This is a fight worth fighting,” Barrera said. He added, “I dropped out for a couple of days and I’m sorry about that. But I’m ready to jump back in.”

Barrera had decided to pull the parcel tax from the November ballot after a string of weekend meetings with Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Councilmen Ben Hueso and Todd Gloria. He said he became convinced that the parcel tax would be extremely difficult to pass, especially with a competing sales tax on the ballot. Barrera said today that he was still loath to harm the city tax, if it is revived.

“All of us have been affected by what happened to the little boy last week,” Barrera said, alluding to the death of toddler Bentley Do. The delayed response of a fire crew to the scene renewed questions about city funding for public safety.

But even after the City Council voted down the sales tax yesterday, Barrera said he didn’t think the school district’s parcel tax could pass. He was pessimistic that the campaign could drum up enough funding to succeed. Campaign consultant Larry Remer earlier said that the tax boosters aimed to raise $1.5 million; Barrera said that wouldn’t happen. He argued that lobbying the state was a better bet than trying to pass the parcel tax.

Yet on Tuesday, Barrera said he had decided that despite those same obstacles, the tax was worth fighting for. He abandoned his motion to cancel the tax. The rest of the school board agreed. Parents and teachers who want to see the tax succeed were thrilled, applauding Barrera for changing his mind.

“I do believe this is a cause. Perhaps a lost cause,” said Mira Mesa High teacher Chris Lawrence. “So what? Sometimes those are the best.”

Tax opponents only seemed more exasperated after the flip-flopping. Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said she wasn’t surprised that Barrera flipped because the city’s sales tax seemed likely to fizzle. Parent advocate Edith Smith said she was worried about his leadership.

“Mr. Barrera, it just seems like you’re swaying with the wind,” said Smith, who opposes the parcel tax. “On Monday you’re one way. On Tuesday you’re another way.”

City Councilman Todd Gloria showed up and spoke at the school board meeting, saying the city would support them and lauding Barrera. He was echoed by school board member Shelia Jackson in emphasizing that the city and the schools would work together in the future.

“This by far will be the largest challenge of what we do together,” Jackson said, “but I do believe that together we will pass, not only our parcel tax, but the city sales tax as well.”

Barrera had gotten promises from Sanders, Hueso and Gloria to back a future schools tax, to lobby for a lower 55 percent bar to pass parcel taxes and to push the state to stop cutting school budgets. Not everyone thought it was a good deal: Board member John de Beck scoffed yesterday at the idea that San Diego officials had real sway with legislators in Sacramento.

“Well, rah rah for that,” he said. De Beck later concluded, “We got snookered by the mayor.”

It is unclear where those promises stand now that Barrera has decided to keep the parcel tax on the ballot. The city sales tax is in limbo, caught in negotiations over whether it will be linked to reforms. The teachers union earlier said it would not want to see the two taxes competing on the same ballot; union President Bill Freeman now says it will back the school tax even if the sales tax is revived.

If voters pass it, the parcel tax would bring in $50 million annually to schools for five years. While that money would not completely plug the $127 million deficit that San Diego Unified is bracing for next school year, it would add $150 per student in each school budget, keep classes as small as possible in early grades, train science and math teachers and help maintain classroom technology.

Without a sea change in state funding or a federal bailout, San Diego Unified has tentatively projected that it would make a long list of cuts to balance its books, including eliminating librarians and counselors and halving the school day for kindergartners. More than 1,400 employees — roughly one of every ten school district workers — would lose their jobs under its current plan.

But when Barrera was talking about turning back on the tax, he said that state lawmakers Denise Ducheny and Nathan Fletcher had assured him that there was a real chance that San Diego Unified could lobby to keep funding at the same levels as last school year, instead of taking another cut. He said today that the school district will keep pushing California to stop slashing school funds.

Even before talk arose of a competing sales tax, the parcel tax was expected to be tough sledding, by backers and opponents alike. It requires two thirds of voters to pass. Such taxes, which impose the same flat fee on the same kinds of parcels, typically fare better in small, affluent school districts.

The school district can’t count on the same backers it got for a recent school construction bond. Support from the business world has wilted as critics argue that the school board tilts too heavily to labor, particularly after it approved a controversial labor pact on school construction and renovation.

“It hasn’t appeared that they have adequate support to get this thing approved,” said Tom Shepard, a political consultant who is working with school district critics who want changes to how it is governed.

San Diego Unified has also been called an outright failure by San Diegans 4 Great Schools, a new group that includes local political heavyweights like Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs. While the group has not weighed in on the school tax, its criticism has come just as tax boosters are trying to generate goodwill.

Remer argued that the back-and-forth would not undermine the ongoing campaign for a parcel tax, calling it a “blip” in the campaign. “We lost 24 hours,” Remer said. “Nobody I spoke to wanted to quit.”

School board member John Lee Evans said it was crucial to let voters decide for themselves on the tax and applauded Barrera for showing “very good leadership.” Barrera interrupted him on that point.

“That’s the one area where I disagree,” Barrera said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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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