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Why the LAUSD parcel tax failed so miserably — and what to do now

Why the LAUSD parcel tax failed so miserably — and what to do now
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti answers questions from members of the Mayor’s Youth Council at Lincoln High School on April 17. (Los Angeles Times)

The plan was for Measure EE to ride to victory on a new wave of support for Los Angeles schools, brought on by the teachers strike in January. The measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass, but an early poll conducted by its proponents suggested that the mood was right for a new parcel tax to fund schools.

Certainly, the needs in the L.A. Unified School District are gaping ones. Schools are underfunded and underperforming; there are shortages of nurses, counselors and librarians. Classes are often too large, teachers are overburdened, and the district’s structural budget problems are so serious they have raised the specter of bankruptcy. The new parcel tax would have brought in $500 million per year for schools, promising meaningful relief.

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But the measure landed with a thud.

Even with the combined efforts of district leaders, the teacher’s union and Mayor Eric Garcetti, the measure couldn’t muster a majority of voters, according to recent vote tallies, much less two-thirds.

The rushed campaign undoubtedly played a role. It’s also to be expected that a single-issue, off-cycle election would draw mainly older, white voters who would feel less connection with public schools serving mostly low-income students of color.

Before it can count on more support, L.A. Unified has a lot to prove.


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But in the end, the best predictor of the vote’s outcome was probably a poll from a year ago showing that only a quarter of voters thought the school district was doing a good job. That sentiment was confirmed by an independent poll in mid-May that delved into the reasons why voters supported or opposed the tax. Aside from general anti-tax sentiment, the most common reason for opposing Measure EE was a sense that previous taxes for schools have gone into a black hole of waste, administrative spending and unsustainably generous employee benefits, rather than into classrooms. Those voters felt the district had to do a better job of managing its existing money and showing results before they would approve more funding.

That’s not entirely fair. Voter-approved bonds have built and repaired schools throughout the district, work that was desperately overdue. L.A. schools that received significant additional funding through state sales and income tax were saved from major teacher layoffs. And L.A. Unified scores on national tests have risen, though they’re still far too low.

Still, there is a measure of truth to voters’ complaints. And even if there weren’t, perception is reality when it comes to approving new taxes. The crushing loss in Tuesday’s election damages the district further. Fairly or not, its leaders, both union and management, will be blamed for bungling a campaign that cost the district an additional $12.5 million and left them with nothing to show for it.

That’s particularly distressing because the bottom line is that L.A. students need more. Overwhelming numbers of them are poor; large numbers are homeless or in the foster care system and many aren’t fluent in English. Hardworking teachers in the upper grades have too many students to instruct and track. Greater efficiency alone will help but not fix the problem.

The district faced a fiscal cliff before. It now faces a fiscal chasm, after signing a teacher’s union contract that requires major new spending.

The district has already begun some of the work needed to raise revenue, such as leasing out unused and underutilized buildings. It has begun reducing expenditures by shrinking its central bureaucracy and, to a very small extent, trimming healthcare costs. It will need to expand on those efforts, especially on health benefits, which are unusually generous, even for teachers’ contracts. United Teachers Los Angeles should work far more cooperatively in getting this done. Having argued during the EE campaign that the district needed more money, it cannot now go back to its old position that the district has plenty of cash secreted away.

District leaders must put together an aggressive lobbying force to seek more money from Sacramento. They probably will throw their weight behind revenue-producing proposals such as the split-roll tax proposition scheduled for the November 2020 ballot.

Newly elected board member Jackie Goldberg has a major role to play. As a savvy, experienced former state legislator, she should be able to provide tactical help in approaching Sacramento. She, like the teacher’s union leaders, has pooh-poohed district pronouncements about a fiscal disaster looming, saying that management always makes that claim. If there was ever a time for her to find the extra money she believes is lurking in the budget, this is it.

None of this rules out the possibility of going back to local voters later in hopes of bringing out a larger pool of liberal voters, more inclined to vote for a tax measure. But before it can count on more support, L.A. Unified has a lot to prove.

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