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If school board member Scott Barnett gets his way, there will be two property tax increases for city schools on the November 2012 ballot.
One would put a flat $50 fee on each parcel owned. The other would raise property taxes by between $30 and $40 per $100,000 worth of property owned. So, a resident who owns a $500,000 home in the city would see up to a $250 total increase per year.
What’s interesting about both hikes is residents would not see much new come from them. For the first $50 parcel tax, teachers would recover a 10 percent decrease in their pay that Barnett is also proposing as part of a package to avoid insolvency. He says if the whole package isn’t embraced, he can’t support the tax alone.
The other property tax hike would be for a new construction bond measure — the bulk of which Barnett says would simply pay for neglected major repairs and maintenance on existing buildings and perhaps replace up to a 1,000 district-owned vehicles that he says the district can’t pay to repair.
Such is the state of the San Diego Unified School District that tax increases like these would only keep teacher pay steady and keep the district from drowning under its backlog of facilities maintenance. And such is the state of politics that both the teachers union and San Diego County Taxpayers Association are blasting his ideas.
The parcel tax would require approval of two-thirds of voters. The construction bond would only need 55 percent.
Yet the construction bond is being sold as a way to pay for more pressing educational needs. The goal this time — Barnett told his colleagues as they were deciding whether to spend $30,000 exploring the bond — was to free up money for teachers, librarians and custodians.
It’s a novel approach. The whole reason construction bonds are easier to pass is that they do not send money to an agency’s day-to-day budget — they’re supposed to be used for one-time construction needs.
No, the teachers, librarians and custodians would not be required to also build schools during their free time in the school day.
One of the jobs of the consultant the school board hired to explore this new bond is to approach the Taxpayers Association to help. He may get a rough reception.
CEO Lani Lutar was not receptive to Barnett’s rhetoric that the bond could free up money for teacher salaries. And she said similar promises to catch up on the backlog of major repairs were made in the $2.1 billion Proposition S in 2008.
She and the Taxpayers Association supported Prop. S. But she insists that an agency that passes a bond like Prop. S to build things needs to already be able to maintain those things. They shouldn’t borrow money to do it.
“It appears they’re proposing to use this follow-on bond to relieve the district of its commitment to maintenance funding, not build capital projects,” she said.
When I read that quote to him, Barnett chuckled and claimed he was responsible for the Taxpayers Association having that principle. He is the former head of the group, who helped bring it greater prominence in the late ’90s and early 2000s. He says the bond will not only repair facilities now but also be big enough and go long enough into the future to take care of future maintenance needs as they arise.
In other cases, the district simply can’t fund its maintenance obligations. Take cars, for example. Barnett says the district has 1,000 vehicles that are in need of major repairs, which it can’t afford to make. The district could not use the bond money to repair cars. But …
“We can buy new vehicles,” he told his colleagues.
Score! Who wants to fix an old car when you can just buy a new one?
Barnett says we can’t trust the board to ever fund maintenance. Hence we should create this fund that will stretch many years into the future.
“I think it’s rather clever myself. It’s clear politicians are going to put people ahead of buildings,” he told me.
Lutar wasn’t impressed.
“They’re desperate for cash and instead of using a capital bond issuance for the reasons it’s designed to be used for, they’re trying to relieve pressure on their general fund and they’re blatantly admitting that,” she said.
As for the other tax, the straight $50 fee on each parcel of property, Barnett says he won’t push it unless the board agrees to the rest of his proposal, which would include the 10 percent cut to teachers’ salaries along with them forgoing expected raises next year. This tax, remember, would need two-thirds of the vote. A similar one, in 2010, failed.
If the construction bond was “clever,” then tying the teachers’ pay to the voters’ willingness to pay a separate parcel tax was provocative — a jolting message that teachers have to persuade taxpayers they deserve their pay. Otherwise the district can’t afford it. The teachers union was not pleased.
“Barnett knows that proposals such as a 10 percent across-the-board pay cut, dismantling employees’ healthcare and tying teacher compensation to ballot measures aren’t necessary or viable,” the union said in a press release.
Others saw a third path: Maybe they’d endorse a tax increase for teachers if it came with more accountability for teacher performance.
Reader Paul M. Bowers, a friend of Barnett’s, offered this perspective about the failed parcel tax last year:
Voters have already said “hell no” to a parcel tax. Voters did not say we don’t like kids or we don’t believe in education. They didn’t say we think teachers or their union are the problem, they didn’t say you’re paying the supe too much.
What I believe voters have said is,” We don’t mind spending a little more for schools, but we don’t want it spent *in the same WAY*.
Barnett said he would not consider tying teacher performance to the tax. Voters would support teachers pay increases without it, he said.
“The overwhelming majority of voters believe teachers should not take a pay cut. This way they can restore any pay cut we pass,” he said.
Note: The text has been updated to make the discussion about the consultant the district hired more readable.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Please contact me if you’d like at email@example.com or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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