School district needs transparency

As reported in last week’s Valley Sun, the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board voted 3-1 to spend $6,500 per month to survey community support for a second parcel tax. The new tax would be in addition to an existing school parcel tax of $150 per year per parcel, with approximately three remaining years.

Disregarding my strong recommendation at the Aug.16 board meeting, competitive survey bids were not solicited. Instead, the contract was solely sourced to TBWB Strategies, a company that would further benefit from a positive survey result because the contract specifies TBWB as the parcel tax marketing company. Despite board member Cindy Wilcox’s request, the district did not share TBWB’s draft parcel tax survey with the public, even though it was presented at a public meeting. The board also voted to make the contract retroactive to July 12, unnecessarily giving away thousands of our school district’s dollars to TBWB.

The parcel tax survey follows four cut days of school to students, producing a cumulative 10 pupil-free days this year. More than 5% of all paid staff days will be without students. The cut days were not due to district funding shortfalls, but to increase pupil-free teacher workdays by 80%.

Although out-of-district students have risen to approximately 15% of all students, their parents do not pay the existing parcel tax or bond measures to upgrade school facilities. They cannot be forced to pay future parcel taxes or bond measures, either. There is no cap on the total number of out-of-district students.

Every parcel tax has an expiration date, frequently five or six years after it is instituted. After a parcel tax expires, another campaign is run to pass a new parcel tax, oftentimes higher than the previous tax. Because the district becomes heavily dependent on parcel tax money, voters are under enormous pressure to vote yes on parcel taxes virtually forever.

Parcel tax passage requires hard-core marketing. Senior citizens are encouraged to vote “yes” on a parcel tax, but quietly are informed that they don’t have to pay it. More than 700 seniors have been granted exemptions to the current parcel tax. Marketing campaigns use a veil of fear that suggests failing to pass the tax will have disastrous district consequences. The reality is that school still goes on, and indeed weak programs or inefficiencies may finally be fixed. Opinions against a parcel tax are shunned at PTA and La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation meetings.

The La Cañada school district has other options rather than a second parcel tax on top of the first one, including requiring employees to pay a greater share of benefits costs, similar to what the University of California has done in the past few years. Weak programs can be cut if necessary, especially as our own student population declines. The school board has yet to dispose of, or produce income from, the old district office on Palm Drive, another potential income source. President Obama’s latest jobs proposal contains $30 billion of funding for teachers, money that likely will benefit the La Cañada school district.

If the district desires to pursue a new parcel tax, it needs transparency. It should share employee salaries and benefits information, compared to other districts, with the public. It should allow disparate opinions to be heard during its marketing campaign to PTA, LCF Educational Foundation and civic groups. Most importantly, before spending $6,500 every month on surveys, it should restore the four cut days to students. More information is at lcusd.wordpress.com.

RON DIETEL is the assistant director for research use and communications at UCLA's National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. He is also a former member of the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board. He is the author of “Get Smart! Nine Sure Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in School,” Wiley/Jossey Bass, 2006, and “The Perfect Test,” Sense Publishers, 2011. He may be reached by email at ron@ucla.edu.

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