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Early voting returns looked bleak for a proposed tax to help San Diego Unified schools: It needs two-thirds of voters to pass, but only 47 percent of voters have backed it in the early returns.

With 18 percent of precincts reporting, about 53 percent of voters have come out against Proposition J.

Even its backers worried that Prop. J had an uphill battle. The school board president nearly pulled it from the ballot this summer, worried that it would be a waste of time. It had to overcome a sour economy, was paired with a city tax on the same ballot and needed a super majority.

Prop. J also became a proxy war over something bigger than the tax itself: Whether the school board, which tilts toward labor, had managed its money responsibly in a budget crunch.

Opponents like the county Taxpayers Association said the school board had been imprudent when it promised employees raises in a few years. The Prop. J campaign spent less time fending off those criticisms than hammering home a simple message: Schools need money and this tax will help. It hoped that turning out infrequent voters would help it tip the scales.

But so far, its chances look slim. If the tax indeed fails, San Diego Unified faces a nearly $142 million deficit next school year, one that threatens to eliminate librarians, vice principals and school police and slash as many as 1,000 educators from the payrolls. Prop. J would not plug that deficit, but would chip in roughly $50 million annually to reduce it.

Even if the tax failed, a solid showing for Prop. J could be a sign that voters believe San Diego Unified is going the right direction. This is the first time voters have weighed in since the new, school board majority was elected two years ago, backed by the teachers union. That could be an important litmus test of how voters feel about the school district • and whether they’ll support dramatic changes, such as San Diegans 4 Great Schools’ bid to alter how the school board is elected.

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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