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I sat down with Richard Barrera this morning to interview him for our weekly Q&A, which will run Friday afternoon. We ended up talking for more than an hour and a half about all things education, from the school district’s dire warning of a possible pending insolvency, to whether parents can expect to see their kids’ beloved athletics or music programs cut this year.

Barrera’s been on a tear recently, appearing alongside Superintendent Bill Kowba on local radio and television shows to spread the word about the district’s financial woes and the looming threat of midyear cuts that would severely increase the district’s deficit as it goes into next year.

We talked extensively about what Barrera envisions as possible solutions to this crisis.

Barrera says the root of the crisis lies in consistent underfunding of education by the state. Sacramento has cut education again and again over the last few years and, he said, the state now hasn’t got enough money coming in to ensure that school districts can meet the ever-increasing costs of doing business.

So, he said the only real way out of the statewide crisis is to generate more tax revenue and make sure it reaches K-12 education. He wants voters to consider raising taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, oil extraction, alcohol, or a combination of those and other sources.

Here’s a sneak peek of my interview with Barrera: A (slightly edited for length) transcript of our conversation on how he would go about solving the state’s education problem and what you can do to help.

What do you think we should do, as a state, to sort this problem out?

I think we should tax wealthy individuals and large corporations to pay for education, K-12, community college and higher education. I think that if voters had a choice to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and large corporations, I’m very confident they would vote to do that.

I think we’ll see one or more ballot initiatives next November, and certainly proposed legislation. I think we’ll see, for example, looking at taxing the top 1 to 5 percent of income earners, taxing them at an additional 1 to 5 percent — not a huge burden on people at that level.

Have you seen any analysis as to how much money a tax like that that might bring in?

For instance, estimates are that a 1 percent income tax on the top 1 percent would bring in about $3 billion a year. If that was all devoted to K-12, for our district, it would roughly be about $45 million a year.

I would hope, if there’s an initiative that comes out, that it’s a little bit more robust than that.

You’ve also talked about other ideas like taxing oil extraction. Any ideas what that would bring in?

People who’ve been kicking around the notion of severance tax say again, maybe in the $2 billion-to-$3-billion-dollar-a-year range. Again, that would be a very low oil severance tax comparatively to other states.

A 10 cent tax per drink on alcohol, which hasn’t had a tax increase in over 20 years, would bring in roughly $2 billion a year.

I think the point is for people who say you can’t raise taxes in a recession because that’s hitting people who are already struggling, well, we don’t have to.

The top income tax bracket in California, even in the mid-90s, was 11 percent and now it’s like 9 percent. Just restoring levels to what they have been previously would just make all the difference in the world for what our kids need in our schools.

A couple of people tweeted me this morning and told me to ask you what they can do, as Californians, to help push measures like that.

Immediately, we’d ask people to communicate by email, phone call, letter, with the governor and with their local legislators.

You talk with those people quite regularly. Does doing that actually make any difference? If my friends each went home and sent an email, would that really make a difference?

It does, in two ways.

As we lay out to legislators what the impact of midyear cuts are, that’s not something they’ve been necessarily thinking about or understand at the level where the rubber meets the road at the school.

So it’s important to educate them.

As they get educated, the response that I’ve gotten back so far is “We’ve got to do everything we can to stop that from happening.” But then, of course, the more a politician is hearing concern about an issue, the more it rises to the top of their priority list.

That’s in the short term.

And I would say that in preparation for what I hope will be choices in front of voters in November, people can start looking at different ideas around taxation. They can start having conversations with their friends and neighbors and families about how active they want to be politically when these choices come to them. Then they can get out and knock on doors and make phone calls to urge people to vote for education.

What are you and your colleagues at the district doing on that front?

We’re working on a lot of different levels. We’ve got a lobbyist, our public policy director, in Sacramento, who’s very effective at not just talking to the electeds but talking to the staff of the electeds, the governor’s staff, the finance director, making them very aware of what these impacts are to our schools.

I’m going to go up to Sacramento in a couple of weeks to have meetings with many of these people, including the governor’s finance director, and have similar conversations about what a midyear cut to our district would mean.

We’re talking directly to legislators. I met Saturday morning with Juan Vargas.

And the most important thing we’re doing is we’re organizing groups of parents and teachers and principals and students to come and sit with legislators.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a meeting with Marty Block and Toni Atkins and there were probably 25 people in the same room, all sharing their concerns about what the impact of these cuts would be to them personally.

Presumably, you would have liked to have seen more like 250 people there though, yeah?

Well, that sort of small group conversation’s important, because you want everybody to have a chance to say something. And what comes out of that is the people who are in that room go back to their networks and encourage the phone calls and the emails and the letters.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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