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California

Failure of L.A. school tax measure could put resources and alliances to the test

RESEDA, CALIF. -- FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2019: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, chats with LAUSD S
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, confers with schools Supt. Austin Beutner during a recent event in Reseda. Their alliance behind Measure EE was not enough to win passage of the tax measure.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner and other high-profile backers of a property tax to benefit public schools needed to get two-thirds support for Measure EE to pass. They seemed confident they could get at least a solid majority. But when the votes were counted, only a paltry 46% of voters backed the proposed parcel tax.

The stunning setback for the Los Angeles Unified School District in Tuesday’s special election raises profound questions for a diverse coalition of unions, nonunion charter schools, disparate community groups, and city politicians and school district officials. District leaders have to decide if and when to try again and what to do differently.

“I am surprised and disappointed by the final tally,” said UCLA education professor John Rogers. He had expected the share of yes votes to reach the high 50s. “The degree of the defeat means that the coalition faces even more of a stark future than if it had been a close election. The coalition lost not just the election but political capital.”

In Rogers’ view, opponents conveyed “an inaccurate but persuasive message” that the school system is dysfunctional. “Spreading that idea harmed public education in the city as well as the prospects for the coalition that promoted Measure EE,” he said.

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Beutner made it clear he intends to hold together hard-won and sometimes uncomfortable allies, including the teachers union. At a down-but-not-out-themed rally at Western Elementary School in Vermont Square, south of downtown, he made a point Wednesday to thank all who helped.

“Decades of underfunding, strained relationships with those who work in schools, not enough progress in helping all students succeed and a lack of trust by many in the community: This can’t be fixed overnight and it’s ultimately about the deeds, not the words,” Beutner said.

“When you get knocked down, you get back up and keep moving forward,” he said with union, district and community leaders as well as Garcetti at his side.

The poor results caught even the politically savvy Garcetti by surprise. The mayor said that he wasn’t sure yet about the next step but that the fight for better school funding would continue.

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Measure EE would have raised an estimated $500 million annually for 12 years by charging property owners 16 cents per square foot of indoor space, excluding parking areas. One shoe to drop Thursday will be a revised budget that more fully accounts for the loss of the hoped-for funding, Beutner said.

The outcome reflects decisions that are easy to criticize in hindsight. Hoping to build on momentum for public education from the January teachers strike, school district officials hurried Measure EE to the ballot at the end of February. They landed it in a low-turnout election that was likely to yield an older, more conservative, more Republican, less tax-friendly electorate.

Parcel taxes for schools have actually fared well overall in California, but they often are put forward in more uniformly prosperous areas and rarely face opposition, as happened in L.A.

“This was a dramatic departure from the typical parcel tax,” said independent pollster Adam Probolsky, president of Newport Beach-based Probolsky Research. “This was L.A. Unified, where you had headlines on the TV and in the newspaper on the way they conduct their business.”

The firm’s poll, conducted in May, suggested that an 8% voter turnout would doom the measure but that it would have a fighting chance with a 17% turnout. The unofficial figure from Tuesday is about 12%, according to the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder.

Matt Klink, a strategist for the No on EE campaign, called support for Measure EE “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

“As long as we were able to define the measure as a tax and reach our voters, we were pretty confident we would win,” he said.

Klink said the district’s decision to hold a special election, with nothing else on most ballots, “actually helped us” target enough voters to defeat the measure.

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The No on EE campaign was funded by business interests and endorsed by such major business groups as the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. and BizFed. One question for district officials is whether a future attempt would be doomed without neutralizing that opposition.

Chamber leaders said they could have supported a tax that placed a smaller burden on businesses. But the plan they favored would have greatly reduced the projected $500 million in annual revenues or forced the district to sharply increase the tax burden for homeowners.

The outcome broke a winning streak for the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which carried out a strike in January and then helped a union-friendly candidate win a special school board election in May.

Union critics were quick to take note.

“The defeat of Measure EE demonstrates the limits of teacher union influence when it comes to tax policy,” said Will Swaim, president of the California Policy Center, whose initiatives include persuading teachers to drop their union membership. The tax increase “would have further raised the cost of living [and] housing for everybody — including the district’s employees. Now it’s time for LAUSD to make tough decisions to address its fiscal insolvency.”

The loss means that the district could be hard-pressed to meet financial commitments in the new teachers contract, which could strain the union’s detente with Beutner.

The presidential primary elections in March 2020 would be a logical time to try a tax measure again, with a larger, more liberal, electorate. There is precedent. In 1997, L.A. Unified passed a $2.4-billion school construction and repair bond after failing on the first try six months earlier. But the extent of Tuesday’s loss could raise doubts.

Backers of Measure EE did an impressive job of rapidly raising campaign money — around $8 million — including from people and groups that often oppose one another. The measure united the teachers union and philanthropist Eli Broad, a union nemesis in other elections. And the teachers unions and SEIU Local 99, which represents most non-teaching district employees, quickly put aside differences over the recent school board election. Both Beutner and Garcetti used personal and political connections to draw in huge donations from some business leaders.

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But more than money was needed, noted UCLA education professor Pedro Noguera, who’d been a parent activist and then a board member when the school system in Berkeley passed its parcel tax. One key was to realistically and specifically define what the money would pay for, he said.

In Berkeley, he recalled, the money was set aside to preserve a popular music program and reduce class sizes. Building up genuine grass-roots support in every school community also matters, he said.

“There were lawn signs all over the city, and the campaign was run by parents,” he said. A standing organization outside the district was formed to pass and renew the parcel tax.

“Think about the big outpouring of support for teachers in January,” Noguera said. “That’s the kind of campaign we needed. I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just pointing out the obvious.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume


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