Thursday, May 27, 2010

L.A. UNIFIED FACES TOUGH TASK IN SELLING PARCEL TAX: Turnout for the June 8 primary is expected to be low and trend old and Republican. But backers maintain hope and say the emergency is dire.

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

May 28, 2010 -- Save a niche in local political history if the Los Angeles school system passes a parcel tax June 8.

Convention holds that there's no logical way Measure E can achieve the two-thirds majority it needs. Backers maintain hope, insisting that, above all, the cause is just and the emergency dire.

Measure E would raise $92.5 million annually over four years for the Los Angeles Unified School District through a tax of a flat $100 per parcel. The money would undo some cutbacks made to offset a $640-million deficit for next year and beyond.

The district has a tall political hill to climb. Relatively low turnout in the primary is expected to trend conservative, older and Republican — all bad for L.A. Unified, experts say. Worse still, the Republican tickets for governor and U.S. senator are hotly contested; the corresponding Democratic races are uncompetitive.

And parcel taxes have fared best in smaller, prosperous enclaves such as San Marino and South Pasadena, although even a bid in Santa Monica fell short this week. Larger, economically diverse districts, including Long Beach Unified and Rowland Unified, have generally failed to pass parcel taxes. Pasadena Unified fell far short earlier this month.

A parcel tax is always a tough sell, said Glenn Gritzner, a political strategist who has helped the district pass construction bond measures but is not involved in this campaign.

"This particular election presents its own unique challenges," said Gritzner, a managing director for Mercury Public Affairs. "The majority of voters in this election will not necessarily be naturally sympathetic."

Polling suggested waiting for the friendlier, more Democratic-leaning November electorate, but that would delay the cash infusion, officials said.

"If we do not invest in our kids in this moment, if we do not figure out a way to keep the most vital and essential programs whole, the fallout from that will go on for years and years," said school board member Steve Zimmer.

The 710-square-mile district stretches across the city of Los Angeles, nine other municipalities and parts of 24 others. Homeowners are already paying off five local school-repair and construction bonds passed since 1997. The bill this year is $151.80 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Without the parcel tax, elementary schools are slated to lose all library staff, and arts programs face a 50% reduction. Class sizes and counselor loads will swell further. Even with the money, most summer school classes would remain canceled, and the school year would still be shortened by five days this year and next.

Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has proposed a first-year budget for the tax proceeds that would set aside about $41 million to partially restore custodians, counselors, nurses, psychologists and others at schools; $15 million would keep elementary arts and music education at current levels; $10 million would retain more high school teachers in core academic classes such as math and English. About $27 million would go directly to school governing councils, composed of administrators, teachers and parents, so they could prioritize local needs.

San Fernando Valley parent Angel Zobel-Rodriguez wants to see money go directly to schools, but "I have absolutely zero faith that the kids at my daughter's school would benefit one iota.... It's not worth the risk of sending that money downtown into the black hole."

In recent months, the campaign was practically invisible, although district employees and area union members will be among those receiving mail and phone calls from either the official campaign or a late-starting union collaboration.

The district's $250,000 information campaign and a $300,000 political campaign add up to far less than what was spent to pass the construction bonds.

Many supporters of past measures have found reasons to say no this time, including the city's two major newspapers and independently operated charter schools, which object to being denied proceeds of the tax. Even the leaders of the city's teachers union had to go twice to their governing body to win support.

"Past history has shown that the district is frivolous with people's money," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "This money is to save arts education and to keep classrooms smaller. We need this stuff. We're desperate for this stuff."

But count Westwood parent Lisa Chapman among the dissatisfied who are voting no, even though she's sent her children to public schools and raised money for them.

"We need an overhaul of LAUSD at the highest levels and accountability measures in place before we throw any more money into a broken and dishonest system," she said.

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