L.A. Unified to seek $100 parcel tax hike

Los Angeles voters will be asked in June to approve a temporary $100-per-parcel annual tax to help fund city schools, but Supt. Ramon C. Cortines warned Tuesday that the increase still would not be enough to head off bigger class sizes, teacher layoffs and, possibly, a shorter school year.

Facing a projected $640-million budget shortfall, officials said the parcel tax would yield $95.2 million annually for the four years it would be in effect. The school board needed to act quickly, Cortines said, so the money could offset some cutbacks for the upcoming school year. For the same reason, the measure had to go before voters in June. Pollsters had favored November as likely to deliver a more liberal, tax-friendlier electorate.

Parcel taxes require a two-thirds majority vote within district boundaries to take effect.

The Board of Education approved the ballot measure on a 5-1 vote, with Tamar Galatzan dissenting and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte absent.

“We’re funding [education] like a third-world country, and I have to take a stand and do something about it,” said board member Richard Vladovic. “I’m voting to give parents the chance to say yes or no.”

The board action came hours after Cortines’ first State of the District speech at Belmont High School. The superintendent emphasized the positive, including rising test scores within the nation’s second-largest school district.

He also noted the need for much higher graduation rates, among other challenges. And he said he won’t settle for excuses.

The budget deficit, however, could imperil district progress. Last week, Cortines proposed shortening the school year for students by five days and for employees by six days. That move would save about $90 million.

“I’m so down because of the budget,” Cortines said before his speech. “I’ve gone through line by line twice, and I can’t balance it yet. I’ve got to be upbeat but I’m not feeling that.”

He cited several reform efforts, including a strategy to allow groups inside and outside the school district to bid for control of 30 campuses. That competition frequently has pitted teachers from traditional schools, which operate under union contracts, against independently operated, mostly nonunion, charter schools.

“I no longer want to see mudslinging” between traditional schools and charters, he said. “We need to spend more time learning from each other.”

Cortines cited the looming deficit as a prime reason for factions to work together.

“Too many times we focus on blaming each other for not achieving our goals,” he said. “We point fingers at our students . . . administrators and our parents. And that has got to stop.”

Passing a parcel tax would require a communitywide effort, he said in an interview. The 710-square-mile district includes Los Angeles proper as well as parts or all of more than two dozen other cities in L.A. County.

School districts around the state, including Pasadena Unified, have placed parcel taxes on their ballots or plan to do so. But prospects are mixed.

In 2009, the 20 California school districts that passed parcel taxes had an average student poverty rate of 15.3%. The nine districts that failed to pass a tax had an average poverty rate of 56%. No district with a rate higher than 40% passed a parcel tax, according to UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access and the University of California Consortium on Research for Diversity.

L.A. Unified’s poverty rate is 76%.

Employee unions signaled they’ll be on board, including the teachers union, despite its habitual rhetoric characterizing L.A. Unified as a “bloated bureaucracy.”

In an interview, Cortines said the tax would aid the district, not charter schools, which operate outside the district structure.

Charter schools, however, would oppose a tax with no benefit for them, said Jed Wallace, chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn.

And a new tax should come with further reforms, such as changes to seniority and tenure systems that reward longevity over merit, said Marco Petruzzi, chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, a locally based nonprofit that runs charter schools.

Both predicted that charters, which have powerful political allies, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, might campaign against the measure.

Board member Galatzan cited unlikely prospects as one reason she cast the dissenting vote. She said the district also should focus more on structural reform before going to voters for more money.

Separately, local property owners already are paying for a $19.5-billion school construction and modernization program, whose proceeds can’t fund other services.

Granada Hills resident Paul Fischer, an X-ray technician, said rising tax rates for the construction bonds hiked his taxes this year by $300. With his wife laid off from her job as a paralegal, he said, he can’t afford more.

“Even to consider another $100 a year,” he said, “is very angering.”