School board President Richard Barrera nearly pulled the school tax off the ballot this summer because he didn’t think it could pass. But he stayed with it. And it didn’t come close to passing. Today I asked him: Was it worth putting it on the ballot?

That’s more than a philosophical question. Floating the tax wasn’t free: San Diego Unified spent $130,000 for polling, research and community outreach and roughly $4,700 on informational flyers about the tax. The school board decided to move forward with it after seeing polls that put it close to passing.

Critics said those numbers were inflated. “It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars if you have data showing that you don’t have a chance,” said Lani Lutar, president of the local Taxpayers Association, which opposed Prop. J.

The school district wasn’t the only group that shelled out. The Prop. J campaign raised more than $300,000 and got more than $65,000 in help from the teachers union, which paid for television ads backing it. Volunteers spent hours phone banking and knocking on doors to drum up support. One of those volunteers, blogger Doug Porter, concluded it was just the wrong time for a tax.

“It was unwise to put any kind of tax on the ballot until you deal with the question of trust in government,” Porter said. Unions need to tackle their image problem, he added.

Barrera said he believes floating the tax was still worthwhile because the campaign energized parents, students, teachers and community members. So did teachers union president Bill Freeman, who said it raised awareness about school budget cuts. And Bob Nelson, a political consultant who helped the teachers union create ads for Prop. J, said he didn’t think it was a waste either.

“If they didn’t try … a lot of people may legitimately have said, ‘You just laid down and didn’t even try,’” Nelson said.

But while few backers were ready to say that Prop. J was a waste, its failure convinced Barrera it will be impossible for a parcel tax to succeed unless California lawmakers lower the threshold for them to pass. It takes two-thirds of voters to pass a parcel tax. Barrera still believes the tax, which now has 49.9 percent of the vote, could get a majority as the provisional ballots are tallied.

“It’s crazy to hamstring local communities who are willing to raise taxes to support their local schools with an unworkable threshold,” Barrera said. “I’d hope it sparks efforts to make the threshold lower.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert

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

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