L.A. Unified School District wisely cools its heels on a parcel tax

LLos Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Buetner talks with LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia before the final board meeting of the 2017-2018 school year. (Los Angeles Times)

As difficult as the school district’s finances are, the Los Angeles Unified school board made the right call when it decided not to put a parcel tax on the November ballot. This year may not be the time to ask for a tax hike. In addition to developing a potentially winning campaign strategy, the district has a lot of work to do internally before it can show persuasively that it is spending the money it has effectively and that it has a wise plan for how to spend more.

The board stalemated 3-3 Tuesday on whether to try for a tax this year, with Supt. Austin Beutner wisely counseling for a delay. The district’s internal polling didn’t provide rosy prospects for a new tax at this time. A tax big enough to overcome the district’s looming operational deficit, which would raise property taxes $610 per year per parcel, didn’t attract enough support to hope for the two-thirds majority needed for passage. In fact, according to the district’s poll, support was merely borderline for a tax about half that size, $330 per parcel each year. And voters often are more negative about taxes when they’re at the ballot box than they are in surveys.

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Also worth noting: Only about a quarter of respondents thought the schools were doing a good or excellent job.

The timing is too tight for supporters to plan much of a campaign. There’s more opportunity to persuade voters if the district puts things off until 2020. Turnout is likely to be bigger in a presidential election year, especially one in which Donald Trump might make a second run, and in California, higher turnout has proved helpful to tax measures. If backers outside the school board can muster enough signatures to put a tax on the ballot instead of the board doing it, the district will need only a simple majority, not two-thirds, which makes its goal more attainable.

But where will the schools find that much support? Especially for a regressive tax that would cost each property owner, wealthy or living paycheck-to-paycheck, $330 (or $610) a year (with exemptions for senior citizens and those with very low incomes)?

A major reason that the district faces a financial cliff is its pension and healthcare obligations that, despite repeated warnings from both internal and external experts, leadership has never addressed. Voters are more likely to spend money to put additional teachers in the classroom than to pay for the benefits of teachers who have left the classroom. “Keep the district from self-inflicted insolvency” doesn’t make for an inspiring campaign slogan.

Above all, voters don’t want to feel that they’re temporarily plugging a hole that will just get larger and require another tax measure in a few years.

The district has to show that it can act as well as ask.

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The pensions of current teachers already have been negotiated and are fixed, but the district and teachers, who also stand to benefit from a parcel tax, must show progress on efforts to cut costs. That includes making reasonable changes to future pension and retiree healthcare benefits that don’t overburden teachers — possibly by requiring them to start contributing to their health insurance premiums or making small out-of-pocket payments.

Voters want their money going to classrooms, not administrative expenses. As of the most recent audit, the district’s administrator-to-teacher ratio was still higher than the state-mandated ratio. That has to change.

According to a recent UC Berkeley study, L.A. Unified has made only incremental progress in directing more money to its poorest schools, especially in elementary grades, despite state funding formulas that call for that to happen. “We continue to see little fairness in how LAUSD distributes dollars to schools,” said Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller, “ignoring whether they serve high or low shares of low-income children.”

The district must show the public not that it can make grand pronouncements about graduating students who have passed the college-prep classes, but that it can graduate students who actually have mastered the material in the courses they take, without reliance on less-rigorous online makeup classes.

None of this would guarantee endorsement from the public — or The Times Editorial Board, for that matter. It’s simply the minimum required to show that the district is serious about its responsibilities to fiscal responsibility, to voters — and its own students.

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