Los Angeles school officials would like the discussion over a proposed property tax to be about benefits to students, but the debate Tuesday was over parking garages.
Disagreement centered on whether the school district meant to tax the spaces where people park and, if so, whether they went about it legally.
The Board of Education tried to work around the issue at a meeting Tuesday by voting unanimously to exempt enclosed parking areas from the tax to benefit the school system.
The district’s action, however, was not enough to prevent opponents from filing a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the proposed levy, which will be before voters in a June 4 election.
Measure EE would allow the Los Angeles Unified School District to tax structures on properties annually at a rate of 16 cents a square foot for 12 years. It will require approval from two-thirds of voters to become law.
Officials estimate the measure would raise $500 million a year for district-run and independently operated charter schools, helping to reduce classroom overcrowding and support vital services to students.
Seniors and many low-income property owners would be eligible to apply for an exemption.
The school board voted Feb. 28 to put the measure on the ballot, but shortly after, the county assessor’s office flagged concerns with the wording that said “habitable” areas would be taxed. This could be taken to mean areas that people lived in when, in fact, the district clearly intended to tax business and office space as well.
In response, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner in March asked county election officials to change the ballot language. The revised definition refers to “the square footage of all buildings or structures erected on or affixed to the land.”
A senior staff member, Amanda Wherritt, alerted school board members of the change, calling it “a minor technical revision,” and officials did not address the matter at a public meeting. Nor was there a public announcement of the change.
The revised language, though, appeared to take in multistory parking structures as well as parking garages in single-family homes and apartments. In fact, the district had deleted a tax exemption for parking that was part of sample language provided by the assessor’s office.
The issue surfaced publicly last week, when opponents called the revisions illegal, arguing the changes materially altered the scope of the tax without school board approval and without the opportunity for public scrutiny and input.
That same argument was advanced Tuesday in a lawsuit filed in L.A. County Superior Court by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. The lawsuit is seeking to halt the election or nullify its results.
“First by gross incompetence, and then by complete and total disregard of the California Elections Code and California’s open meeting law” the district and county “are presently conducting an unlawful election,” the lawsuit contends.
The school system’s general counsel, David Holmquist, said the lawsuit “had no merit.”
Tuesday's resolution stated the board’s intent that Measure EE “shall not be implemented to require collection of the $0.16 per square foot levy on improvements used for parking, whether residential or non-residential.”
In a statement after the meeting, Beutner said, “The conversation about Measure EE should be about the imperative to adequately fund local public schools in all of the communities we serve. Let’s not be distracted from this imperative.”
However, the No on EE campaign has been using the altered ballot wording to suggest that district officials are incompetent, duplicitous or both.
Because the board’s resolution “won't actually amend Measure EE, it's not worth the paper on which it is written,” said Tracy Hernandez, founding chief executive of BizFed, which represents local business groups. “This school board or another school board could change its mind again next week, next month, or next year. Why should the taxpayers trust this board?”
Hernandez, who also serves as spokeswoman for the campaign against the tax, was among several business leaders who criticized the district and Measure EE at Tuesday’s meeting.
Maria S. Salinas, head of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, told the board that the district’s actions “can easily be seen as a bait and switch.”
“We believe these changes violate the public trust,” she said.
Testifying in support of Measure EE was former school board member David Tokofsky, who accused the business leaders of protecting their narrow self-interest at the expense of the broader community.
Board member Richard Vladovic also defended the tax measure.