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LAUSD postpones effort to raise new parcel tax

LAUSD postpones effort to raise new parcel tax
L.A. schools chief Austin Beutner, left, confers with school board member Monica Garcia.

A proposal to forestall the Los Angeles Unified School District’s looming fiscal problems by asking voters to approve a new parcel tax failed to win enough support Tuesday to make it onto the November ballot.

Money from the parcel tax would have gone toward filling the multi-million dollar shortfall the district expects to have in four years, when it has spent down its reserves.

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But in a spirited discussion Tuesday, the board split 3 to 3 over the question of whether there was enough time to persuade two-thirds of voters to support the tax.

“People are gone for the summer, the board doesn’t reconvene until mid-August. … It just seems like too ad hoc of a strategy,” said Nick Melvoin, one of three board members who voiced support for postponing the measure to 2020, when a presidential election will probably increase voter turnout.

“I haven’t seen a willingness from board members to say, ‘I’m going to spend the next three months knocking on doors,’” Melvoin said.

He was joined by Ref Rodriguez and Monica Garcia, who was elected by her colleagues Tuesday to another term as board president. Board member Kelly Gonez, who gave birth to a boy last weekend, was absent for the vote. The four make up a bloc of charter school allies who effectively control the seven-member board.

The pro-parcel tax group led by board member George McKenna was seeking approval for a flat tax on individual properties, with exemptions for people 65 and older and those with very little income. The size of the tax was up for debate, provided that it was high enough to significantly reduce the district’s projected deficit. Board members Richard Vladovic and Scott Schmerelson also supported the measure.

Polls commissioned by the district tested several different parcel taxes. They found insufficient support for a tax of $610, which would raise $500 million a year, more than enough to cover the deficit. But voters appeared willing to approve a tax of $330. Of the likely November voters surveyed last month, 68% said they would vote “yes.”

“I’ve heard that we should wait. And yet we hear our budget person say there’s an urgency,” McKenna said. “This is not just a political issue, it’s a financial issue. We need money.”

Supporters of the November timeline said that waiting two years to put the measure before voters could force board members into a politically risky situation. Several of them are expected to be running for reelection in 2020 at the same time that they might be asking voters to raise taxes.

Charter school advocates, several of whom spoke at the board meeting, said they would not support a ballot measure that increased funding only for L.A. Unified but not for the more-than 200 charter schools within its boundaries.

Supt. Austin Beutner said he opposed the November timeline. Putting the measure on the ballot this fall and campaigning to raise public awareness would cost L.A. Unified about $5 million, he said, and probably would not succeed. “I believe a better option is to properly plan to do this for 2020 when we can be successful,” he said.

To increase the chances of a win, L.A. Unified could take a page from the San Francisco schools’ playbook and collect voter signatures to get the measure on the ballot. This would lower the threshold needed to pass the tax from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority.

In a sign of how far the school board has shifted politically since last summer’s elections, it voted 4 to 2 on Tuesday to hire the law firm of Latham & Watkins to advise the district as it attempts a financial restructuring.

The vote was unusual because the firm had not previously been viewed as an ally. It has sued L.A. Unified four times in the last several years, according to district officials. In at least one of those cases, the firm sued the district on behalf of charter school advocates.

Of the four board members who voted to work with the firm, the majority of them were elected with wide support from wealthy charter advocates.

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According to district officials, Latham & Watkins offered its legal services for free. L.A. Unified has agreed to pay its expenses.

4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the parcel tax vote and Tuesday’s board meeting.

This article was originally published at 2:25 p.m.

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