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On to the third installment of my attempts to answer and explain the questions I’m getting on Proposition J, the schools tax:
Can San Diego Unified just shift the money around so that the parcel tax actually helps other programs?
Money from Prop. J, a proposed parcel tax for San Diego Unified schools, must go to four different programs: First, each school will get $150 per student for academic programs, which can fund anything from counselors to the arts.
About half of the remaining money will be devoted to keeping class sizes low. Smaller slices will go to classroom technology and to teacher training and curriculum for science, math and middle school English learners.
The ballot measure says no money will go to administration.
But Prop. J doesn’t require the district to keep up its existing funds for the programs spelled out for the tax.
Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, argues that this allows the school board to play a shell game: The district could use the tax money to replace its existing spending for those programs, then transfer money it would otherwise spend on them to other things.
I asked John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, to take a look at Prop. J and tell me if the risk is real. He wrote in an email that there is nothing written in the tax to stop the shell game from happening:
For example, the measure clearly states that the money should not be used to pay administrators. However, if the district wanted to (say) increase the salary of an administrator by $1,000, it could reduce the amount of money it would have otherwise spent on classroom instruction from other funds by $1,000 and use it pay the administrator, and then use the new tax to cover the hole in classroom instruction spending. … I am not suggesting that anyone is considering doing such a thing, only that because of the fungibility of money, there is really no way to control where it will effectively (as opposed to nominally) go within the budget …
School board President Richard Barrera said that on a practical level, the argument makes no sense because San Diego Unified needs the money to prevent programs from being eliminated. In other words, there is no extra money to shift around.
“Their argument only makes sense if we already have all the money we need,” Barrera said.
So, yes, the school district could play the shell game. But Barrera says the situation is so dire that there’s no way it would ever happen.
Got more questions about Prop. J? I’m explaining how the proposed parcel tax for San Diego Unified schools would work and exploring claims on both sides of the debate. Tell me what you want to know!