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LAUSD says it needs the Measure EE tax. Skeptics say the district has a spending problem

L.A. Times Today airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Spectrum News 1.

The pitch for raising taxes for schools used to be images of cracked asphalt playgrounds, leaking classroom roofs and jammed year-round campuses.

But at STEAM Legacy High School in South Gate, Exhibit A is the impressively equipped engineering classroom of teacher Mario Ibarra.

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He’s got 3D printers, a laser cutter, an embroidery machine and other gear that his students use to make robots, marble-sorting machines and hydrogen-powered mini-cars. These students, 90% from low-income families, already are success stories in the making. So for Principal Carla Barrera-Ortiz, the question is what more could be accomplished if voters approve Measure EE, a parcel tax on Tuesday’s ballot.

“Just like Mario is very passionate about how can we make this better for students, what weighs on my shoulders every day is how can I make this better for the lives of the community I serve,” Barrera-Ortiz said. “And these students are our community.”

Measure EE would charge property owners 16 cents per year per square foot of interior space, excluding parking areas. For a 1,500-square-foot home that works out to $240. The tax would raise an estimated $500 million annually over its 12-year life, a sizable boost for the nation’s second-largest school system, which spends about $13.7 billion a year.

Seniors and those living on disability payments can apply to be exempt from the tax.

Ibarra’s outfitted classroom is an outlier, the result of extraordinary resourcefulness in applying for grants and partnering with industry. Most district students don’t have anything like these resources under the current funding structure. But more of them would benefit from better learning conditions if Measure EE passes, officials say.

They cite the successes initiated by Ibarra and Barrera-Ortiz as evidence the Los Angeles Unified School District merits increased financial support. L.A. Unified is still overcoming negative public perceptions shaped by such past debacles as a costly, poorly managed and unsuccessful iPads-for-all effort and an expensive and badly handled new student information system.

Critics of the new tax say it is too soon to trust L.A. Unified with a financial windfall and contend that substantial funds would be available to help students if the district simply improved its management.

The tax measure requires two-thirds voter approval and overcoming a “No on EE” campaign, which argues that L.A. Unified has done far too little to reduce its budget in the face of declining enrollment and warnings about deficit spending from county analysts. There’s also criticism over costly promises in a recently approved teachers’ contract, which provides for pay raises, more nurses and librarians and slightly reduced class sizes.

The evidence “strongly suggests” that “LAUSD has a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” asserted the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley. “It is irresponsible to ask for smaller class sizes, continue to hire more nonteaching positions with a shrinking student count, be under fiscal watch by the L.A. County Board of Education, promise raises and incur additional costs, and then ask property owners for more money.

“We all agree that we want to provide a solid, quality education for our children, however, the policies, programs and spending of LAUSD are not getting us there,” the business group stated.

To address concerns, the Board of Education voted to establish an oversight committee to review how the money is spent— which is more than other districts have done with parcel taxes; critics, however, counter that the committee could be disbanded at the board’s whim.

Residents are currently paying special taxes for L.A. Unified, but this request of taxpayers is different. The existing levies relate to five voter-approved school construction bonds — a total of $20.6 billion — approved since 1997. Property owners are gradually paying them off; for the current year, those taxes come to $123.22 per every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value. District officials say other bonds of this sort will be needed in the future for building, repairing and modernizing school structures.

Measure EE would supplement operating funds provided through the state and federal governments. Its proceeds would enter the district’s general fund with few limitations on how the dollars could be spent.

Critics note that proceeds would not have to be used to hire school staff or improve the classroom environment. The new funding might not even be available for those purposes. That is because the school system, according to its own analysis, is spending much more than it is taking in.

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The district also faces the burden of increasing mandated contributions to an underfunded state teachers’ pension system. There are also rising costs from the district’s obligation, under labor contracts, to pay for retiree healthcare benefits. In one scenario, the Measure EE revenues might be barely enough to maintain the status quo, to buy time while L.A. Unified works on other fronts to cut costs and gain additional funding from other sources.

The work on efficiency is underway and is beginning to result in savings, officials say.

Even in Ibarra’s class, there are many needs.

On a recent Wednesday, he was overseeing 33 students as they worked in small groups to assemble machines that could sort marbles, either by weight or appearance. It was a technological and mechanical challenge.

Ibarra has more than 200 students on his roll book this semester. At the very least, he could use a teaching assistant. Moreover, some students are doing college-level work and could be getting college credit for it. Extra funds could help set that up by, for example, bringing community college instructors into the high school to enhance and certify students’ skills. Students can already earn such certificates in certain technical-skill areas, including water-quality testing.

In an interview, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said he wouldn’t wait on Measure EE to launch more of these efforts. But he said additional resources are sorely needed across the school system.

At 96th Street Elementary School, for example, he recalled going to the house of a third-grader who was absent about half the time, even though he said he likes school.

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“His mom has a severe medical illness — bedridden,” Beutner recalled. “That’s the only adult in his life.”

The school has one staff member assigned to manage a host of such disruptive family situations.

Beutner also alluded to a middle school, with about 1,000 students, where staff had tallied 125 children with “some form of suicidal ideation,” he said. “Twenty-five are now hospitalized in a clinical setting.

“We have one psychiatric social worker,” he said. “You can’t possibly tell me that’s acceptable.

Although district academic performance is generally in line with that of other urban school systems facing similar challenges — including high numbers of immigrants, homeless students and low-income families — Beutner readily acknowledges the shortcomings: 68% of L.A. Unified students fall below state academic targets in math and 58% in English.

“That’s not acceptable,” he said. “We’ve got to do better. We know that and we’re working on it. People like Mario and Carla are working on it.”

As far as support for Measure EE, Beutner added: “To those who would say, ‘We’re frustrated and so the answer is No.’ What’s your Yes?”

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