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Help Students--Not the Tax Revolt : Schools scramble to create special assessment districts as the slumping economy pinches

Normally this is a quiet time for school districts, but in this summer of gloomy weather--and a gloomy economy--many residents are anything but quiet.

In Orange County, district meetings have been alive with the angry sounds of tax revolt, as desperate school trustees have created or contemplated special assessment districts. The idea is to provide new taxes to pay for building repairs or recreational facilities.

Monday night in Los Angeles County, the protest at Whittier Union High School District went on so long into the night that some who came to speak in favor of the tax gave up and went home. Two school districts in North San Diego County grasped for similar special assessment straws but withdrew under fire.

Welcome to the long, hot summer.

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It’s easy to understand the motivation. Trustees and their harried administrators are the last recourse against the fiscal severities of Proposition 13 and other pressures. To keep their school districts running, they have latched onto the state’s Lighting and Landscaping Act of 1972 as a way to raise badly needed revenue.

But few school trustees could have been prepared for the firestorm. There have been jeers and threats of recall at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified District. In Huntington Beach an angry crowd of more than 1,000 protested a plan by a joint authority of four school districts; so heated has the protest become there that lawsuits are in the works.

The imposition of these assessments has touched a public nerve in a time of anti-tax sentiment. While voters could only observe the state budget process, they are in a position to get it off their chests--up close and personal--at the local board.

The school districts’ need is real, but there has to be a better way. It’s understandable that administrators feel compelled to play a shell game, perhaps even shifting funds from maintenance to pay for erasers and then finding some other way to patch the wall. But it’s better to put it to the voters--and state Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange) has a proposal that would do just that. Alas, it would tie the hands of the districts by requiring such assessment districts to be approved by a two-thirds margin. Don’t issue a death sentence to needed revenue; give it a fair chance by requiring a simple majority. That way, districts have a chance to get funds and voters get a chance to have a say.

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