Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Long Beach Press-Telegram Editorial | LA Newspaper Group

18 May 2010 -- The voters inside the boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified School District have been generous to schools.

Very generous - billions-of-dollars generous.

In the last 13 years, property owners have taken on $20 billion worth of debt in the form of five bond measures to build schools. The debt comes due twice a year in property tax bills and will continue well into the next two decades.

But that generosity has a limit, and LAUSD may have reached it with the four-year, $100-a-lot parcel tax on the June8 ballot.

School officials make the case that education has taken a huge hit in the economic crisis. No doubt it has, and it will continue to do so before the economy improves. In Los Angeles, which is facing a $640 million shortfall for its $7 billion operating budget next year, summer school has been canceled, the school year shortened and teachers let go. Those were hard but necessary choices that the district made to weather the bad times. But it's no different from the choices that every other other governmental agency, every business and every family has had to make in the last two years during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Measure E proponents are counting on the past generosity of voters and the inherent sympathy we have for public schools to get the two-thirds of the voters needed. But this parcel tax measure differs in significant ways from the five bond measures that were enthusiastically endorsed by voters.

First, it's a flat fee for every parcel, from a tiny house to an enormous commercial building. The bonds, in contrast, are paid back by homeowners based on the assessed value of their homes.

Second, the building bonds only pay for capital improvements and the building of new or the rebuilding of old, crumbling schools - something that was self-evidently necessary from every corner of the district. The bonds created a one-time funding source for one-time costs.

By comparison, this parcel tax revenue - estimated at $92.5 million per year - will go right into the general fund to support regular school operations.

Besides the fact that we pay taxes - high taxes at that - specifically for the purpose of running schools, funding ongoing costs with temporary revenue is extremely bad policy. One of the reasons that governments in California have been so hard hit by this recession is the failure to plan for inevitable financial downturns. Until recent years, tax revenue went up every year - and long-term spending commitments went up right along with them, despite the built-in volatility of tax revenue.

In a meeting with the editorial board of the Daily News, a sister newspaper of the Press-Telegram, Monica Garcia, president of the LAUSD Board of Education, said the money from the parcel tax would act as a "bridge" to allow the school board and district officials to secure a more stable funding source and avoid drastic cuts. She said they have a plan to wean the district off the parcel tax revenue in four years.

However, the plan outlined by Garcia and other district officials offers little reassurance that the district would be any better off in 2014. The three-point plan relies on 1) fixing structural federal funding problems, 2) fixing structural state funding problems, and 3) unspecified internal savings.

Relying on fiscal sanity or fairness in Washington, D.C., or Sacramento sounds more like fantasy than an actual plan. Worse, relying on this money takes away the urgency that might result in lasting and meaningful financial reforms that could keep the district on an even keel even during future recessions.

We recognize the financial hardships faced by LAUSD. They are reflected in every corner of the city and the state. But district officials make a weak argument to justify another tax.

Vote no on Measure E.

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