Column: This election was a bigger rout than the Measure EE failure; readers vote 9 to 1 against columnist

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, talks about the defeat of Measure EE at Western Avenue Elementary School in South L.A. on June 5.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Measure EE, the parcel tax for L.A. Unified schools, got crushed at the polls last week.

But it wasn’t as big a loser as my column on EE’s failure.

Reaction is running about 90% thumbs-down on my take, in which I said that our schools are shamefully underfunded, but that a clear majority of people aren’t all that worked up about it.

The darts came early, they came often, they keep coming.

“Seriously? Let me tell you something,” wrote Deanne, an LAUSD parent and alum who resented my suggestion that some people don’t care. She said the parcel tax would have cost her about $1 a day, and that’s too much. “I don’t have cable TV, I don’t go to Starbucks for daily coffee, we rarely eat out.”

A Sherman Oaks reader named Nancy picked up on that theme.

“How dare you say people don’t care,” she scolded.

Well, excuse me, but when roughly 9 of 10 registered voters don’t even bother to cast a ballot on a measure of critical importance to more than a half-million of the city’s poorest children, what does that say?


Nancy added that she’s on Social Security with a tight budget and doesn’t see why she should have to bail out a district that’s badly mismanaged.

I feel for Nancy and anyone else on a fixed income in this economy. But if she’s on Social Security, she could have gotten a Measure EE exemption by filling out a form. And about 80% of the increased parcel tax would have been paid by commercial property owners, some of whom might be better able to afford a parcel tax increase because of their windfall savings from Proposition 13.

Nancy argued that they’d just pass on the cost to renters and consumers.

Maybe, maybe not. But how many more years should we let the business side exploit Proposition 13 loopholes?

Ernest lives in Santa Barbara and couldn’t vote on EE, but he had things all figured out for us from afar.

“Many Mexicans refuse to push their kids to learn and it shows,” said Ernest, who added that some teachers “dress like slobs.”

Thanks for checking in, Ernest.

I’m not saying there were no good arguments against the parcel tax, which would have cost the average homeowner about $250 a year — even more for those with bigger homes. I listed several of them in my last column, and readers piled on.

They didn’t think the language of EE was clear enough on where the $500 million a year would go. They recalled the teachers union arguing not long ago that the district has a budget surplus. They didn’t like how the district approved a new teacher contract, then asked voters to pay for it. They are tired of being asked to pay more for schools, homeless services and other things without evidence of improvements.

And they DO NOT TRUST local officials, nor did they like seeing that L.A. Unified, with so many woes, wasted $12.5 million to stage the election.

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I see their point, and I doubt that the supporters of EE could have done a worse job of changing minds. They blew several million dollars on fliers and door knocking and who knows what, but couldn’t even get the needed two-thirds support in blue neighborhoods. Meanwhile, whiter voters in more conservative districts — some drawn to the polls because of the City Council District 12 race in the San Fernando Valley — clobbered EE.

The teachers union, which led huge rallies in January during a six-day strike, was absent for the most part, without a note from the doctor. There were no rallies this time, and the momentum from January was squandered.

So maybe EE didn’t deserve to win, and supporters of more school funding are going to have to do a much better job next year, when we may see another attempt.

I do, however, have a however.

A big part of what drove the no vote was the perception that L.A. Unified is a disaster unworthy of one more red cent.

“They peddled an old message that the district is mismanaged and has always been mismanaged,” said L.A. Unified board member Jackie Goldberg. “They can’t find a superintendent they like, they certainly never found a board they like. Mismanagement has always been the first complaint, and it’s the one the [Howard] Jarvis [Proposition 13] people spent the most time on.”

Management, as I said last week, has not been a strong suit of L.A. Unified through the years. I’ve written more than a few columns about the scandals.

Readers also contended, as they always have and always will, that the bureaucracy is bloated (not entirely true), and that teachers don’t deserve the pension and healthcare deals they have.

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It’s true that increasing retirement costs, along with declining enrollment, have helped create an ongoing budget nightmare for the district. But teachers shouldn’t have to starve in retirement, and they don’t get Social Security.

Another popular LAUSD-bashing canard is that we have to stop throwing good money after bad. Money does not make a difference, readers insist, and many are convinced that deporting students living in the U.S. illegally would fix everything.

Nobody would argue against the need for better management and more efficiency, but the broadsides against L.A. Unified skirt complexity and ignore history.

Public schools were golden when I was a kid and the state was proud to be in the upper ranks of funding per pupil. Then came busing, and white flight, and Proposition 13, which shredded state revenue. These forces left schools with higher concentrations of poor and minority students.

The postindustrial economy complicated all of this, with minimum-wage jobs replacing living-wage jobs as housing costs soared. Today the poorest of the poor attend L.A. Unified, which spends $8,000 less per pupil than New York City spends on its students.

Counselors are scarce, libraries are closed, nurses have been fired, some class sizes are unmanageable, teachers pay for student supplies, spectacular music programs have been dismantled and arts scaled back.

And yet on every campus, good things happen. Teachers teach, students learn, and many go on to college. Only from a distance and through a cynical lens does that look like failure.

I’m a senior citizen, but LAUSD has dozens of schools that are older than I am, and they’re falling apart. I checked with the district last week on the latest deferred maintenance count. That’s the number of needed repairs that don’t get done because there isn’t enough money.

As of Friday, the backlog was at 21,382 and the projected cost was $3.5 billion, not including the cost of modernizing hundreds of buildings. The current deferred maintenance list includes $1.32 billion in needed heating and air conditioning work, $277 million in plumbing repairs, $258 million in electrical repairs, $252 million in paving and $167 million in roof repairs.

Six years ago, when I first hit this topic, I found that the district had lost 500 custodians and 650 carpenters, plumbers and electricians because of budget cuts. At the time, I wrote about Marshall High in Los Feliz, where the gym bleachers were splintered, with crime scene tape around the most dangerous areas. The front of the school was encased in scaffolding because of damage that began with a 1972 earthquake.

The bleachers were fixed after my column ran. I visited Marshall on Monday and saw that the front of the school, built in 1930, is still draped in scaffolding while undergoing repairs.

The schools are failing us, or we’re failing them?

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez