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Nobody thought persuading voters to pay more for schools would be easy in a recession.

The battle to pass a parcel tax increase seemed so intimidating that one of its biggest backers, school board President Richard Barrera, waffled this summer on whether to keep Prop. J on the ballot at all.

The tax ended up being walloped at the polls. After almost all of the ballots were tallied Friday afternoon, Prop J. got 49.7 percent of the vote, far below the two-thirds it would need to pass. The meager results are a blow to San Diego Unified in the first race since a new school board majority took the helm.

Prop. J would have brought in roughly $50 million annually to schools for five years, enough to dent but not plug the $142 million deficit that San Diego Unified faces next school year. The money would have been used to keep classes as small as possible in the early grades, train science and math teachers and maintain classroom technology.

Now that the tax has failed, the school board will have to tackle the entirety of the district’s nearly $142 million deficit, which threatens to eliminate librarians, vice principals and school police and slash as many as 1,000 educators from the payrolls. School board member John Lee Evans was rueful as he watched the election returns come in.

“It’s back to the drawing board,” he said.

The tax had to get a lofty two-thirds of voters to pass. It also had to vie for votes at the same time as a city tax increase was proposed — in the middle of a sour economy. Parent Shanna Decker said it broke her heart to vote against Prop. J, but as the owner of three commercial properties, she just couldn’t afford it.

“You can barely pay what it costs right now on it, so I had to say no,” Decker said, as she voted Tuesday in Hillcrest.

Prop. J did dramatically worse than the school construction bond that San Diego Unified put on the ballot two years ago, which passed with nearly 69 percent of voters. Political consultant Larry Remer, who helped run both campaigns, said the foundering economy and a tidal wave of conservative voters made the difference this time. Yet the tax failed while a progressive school board candidate, Kevin Beiser, topped the polls.

While opponents didn’t raise money to defeat the tax, they waged war on San Diego Unified in the press, arguing that the school board had been fiscally irresponsible. Prop. J became a proxy war over whether the school board, which tilts toward labor, had given too much to employees.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association attacked raises promised for teachers as unsustainable. Other opponents pointed to rising costs under a labor agreement on its $2.1 billion construction bond.

Unlike the city’s Prop. D campaign, which offered reforms to garner new revenue — and failed anyway, Prop. J didn’t include a clear tit-for-tat. While the school board pointed out that the tax had safeguards to ensure the money was spent as promised, including an oversight committee, Prop. J had no carrots for critics who argued it had given too much to labor in the first place.

The Prop. J campaign was focused on a simpler message: Schools need money and a tax increase would help stave off devastating cuts. The campaign hammered the point that Sacramento legislators couldn’t take the money away. Children and parents held up hand-painted signs with mottos like “I Love My Librarian” at small rallies. The campaign raised more than $300,000 — less than some backers had originally hoped — but the teachers union chipped in with television ads promoting the tax.

Their goal was to bring out voters who would back the tax, often in areas where turnout tends to be low. They also tried to persuade swing voters in districts like Point Loma and Clairemont. Phone bankers said almost everyone seemed to back the tax. Yet the ultimate results were dismal.

While the tax was widely believed to be a long shot, a stronger showing for Prop. J could have helped the school district make the case to Sacramento legislators that a lower threshold for school taxes, like the 55 percent that can pass school bonds, would be fairer. But if the tax comes out still shy of even a majority vote, it will be hard for the school district to make that argument.

Clarification: This article originally included vote tallies based on incorrect figures provided by the county registrar, which calculated the percentage based on the total number of people who cast ballots rather than those who actually voted on the tax. The figures didn’t change the overall outcome, just the reported percentage. We’ve updated the article to include the most up-to-date vote tally.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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