Thursday, February 18, 2010

PARSING THE PARCEL TAX: Yes, the LAUSD needs the money. But will voters go along? And what exactly would be funded?

LA Times Editorial

February 18, 2010 -- The parcel tax proposal for Los Angeles schools is barely out of the gate and already it's limping. In an economy this bad, a new $100-a-year tax on each piece of residential and commercial property sounds like a lot of money to many property owners. In addition, parcel taxes in poorer school districts have fared badly at the ballot box lately. And even if it passes, the money would only begin to cover budget shortfalls at the L.A. Unified School District.

What's more, many voters remember that they recently approved a far bigger sum in construction bonds so that students could have uncrowded, sparkling, state-of-the-art classrooms.

There are some things to admire about the new tax proposal. Even if the money isn't nearly enough to make the district whole, the school board was right to keep the amount and duration moderate -- less than $400 million over four years, compared with more than $7 billion over a decade in the over-padded bond measure of 2008. We're glad the district moved decisively to place the measure on the ballot in June rather than November, even if its chances are weaker in a spring election. The district's shortages are immediate.

Although we are convinced of the need, that doesn't mean we are convinced about this particular proposal. We will be learning more about the measure in coming weeks, and hope to hear item-by-item specifics from district leaders on how this money would be spent; one of our chief objections to the bond was the vagueness about the projects that would be funded. We're not persuaded by assurances that none of the money from the parcel tax would go to administration. The budget is fungible; more money for the classroom means fewer cuts for administration. Besides, at least a portion of this money should go to the district's Office of the Inspector General for regular audits on whether it is being used well.

We also want to hear more about what the district has done and will continue to do in order to cut unnecessary expenses. In 2007, the board voted -- in a union-placating move and over the objections of then-Supt. David L. Brewer, who said the district lacked the money -- to expand the hours and benefits of cafeteria workers at a cost of millions of dollars per year. Has the district done anything to cut back on those expenses? If not, will it?

If local voters are asked to give yet again to L.A. Unified, they have a right to ask what they would get in return.

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