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Could Parcel Tax Save SD Schools?

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Aired 4/1/10

More and more school districts in California are turning to a parcel tax -- a flat fee for every parcel of land owned by a resident regardless of worth -- which would go directly to the school district, not to Sacramento. San Francisco is the largest school district to have passed one so far. Would San Diegans support such a tax?

Danielle Zdunich, a teacher at McKinley Elementary School, reads a book to her students, March 2010.
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Above: Danielle Zdunich, a teacher at McKinley Elementary School, reads a book to her students, March 2010.

— TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge, and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. Maintaining the quality of public education takes money. And money for schools has been short in California ever since the passage of Prop 13. Things have only gotten worst in our current recession. And yet, there is a way to raise more money for schools: passing a parcel tax. San Francisco passed one, and now the San Diego Unified School District is weighing the possibility of doing the same. Like all local tax increases in California, this would require voter approval. Joining me to talk about parcel taxes, and what are the chances we may actually get one in San Diego, is Ana Tintocalis. And Ana Tintocalis is the KPBS News education reporter. And, Ana, thanks.

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): Thank you.

FUDGE: Ana, first, how deep is the budget hole at San Diego Unified? What kind of a problem are they trying to solve?

TINTOCALIS: So for the 2010-2011 school year, which is what the district is currently trying to balance its books on, there’s about a $90 million budget deficit so that’s what they’re looking at, but that’s been on top of cuts over the past two years. Over the past two years, the district has had to cut about $200 million, so if this, you know, type of another budget deficit goes through, that’s about $300 million in cuts that the district has had to make.

FUDGE: And what have they done so far to try to address it? Have there been layoffs? Salary reductions?

TINTOCALIS: That is one thing that the district has avoided. They’ve avoided teacher layoffs but something that was really a Godsend for the district was that they floated this early retirement plan for teachers last year, so teachers, veteran teachers, could leave the district early if they took this kind of buyout plan from the district, so that really helped the district make ends meet last year. They’ve also really streamlined the central office. They’ve really gotten rid of departments, they’ve consolidated. That took a huge hit, the central office has taken a huge hit. And then there’s been bigger class sizes. You know, students have been added to almost every grade and every class so you see bigger class sizes and then, of course, there’s been cuts to all kinds of little services and programs.

FUDGE: And yet they still have a problem so now they’re considering the idea of a parcel tax. Ana, what’s a parcel tax and maybe you can explain how it’s different from a school bond.

TINTOCALIS: Sure, yeah, so there’s a school bond and a parcel tax. The school bond, it needs a 55% voter approval to pass and it’s basically a tax that’s levied on property owners and it takes money based on the assessed value of your home. And this money goes directly to construction projects, renovations, modernization issues like bricks and mortar type of thing. A parcel tax is different because it requires a two-thirds supermajority vote to pass, which is quite hard. It’s a flat tax so property owners, if they own a parcel of land, they get taxed a flat tax, and it’s regardless of what it’s worth. And this money raised can go towards school operations, so teachers’ salaries, things that take place within a classroom. It could be paid – it could be used for, you know, school supplies, whatever might be threatened by budget cuts.

FUDGE: But it’s a flat tax so whether your property’s worth a million dollars or $100,000 it’s the same. And it goes directly to the school district, Sacramento is not involved at all.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to underline here. School districts are increasingly looking to parcel taxes because the money raised goes directly to the school districts, not Sacramento. So a lot of kind of the rhetoric around parcel taxes, that it’s a way for parents in the community to take back local control of their schools.

FUDGE: And I think you talked with some folks at San Diego Unified about this very issue.

TINTOCALIS: Right, yeah, because they are considering a parcel tax and most likely it will move forward to be placed on the November ballot. And what they’re asking right now is a possible $98.00 annual fee for five years. They’re kind of calling it this emergency tax, to get them through this economic situation. And they’re packaging it so far as, you know, parents want to be involved and it’s a way to really help the economy. And this is what Bernie Rhinerson had to say. Bernie is the district’s communications director, and this is what he had to say about how it might help just everyone in the city.

BERNIE RHINERSON (Communications Director, San Diego Unified School District): And it makes a difference in the economy. You know, if we educate kids that can go into the workforce and be prepared and be successful in college, the overall economy in California is going to benefit from it and we all benefit from that. So I think it’s time to have that discussion, that debate in San Diego about what kind of schools we want and are we willing to have more local control over the funds that we have to spend on education.

FUDGE: And that’s Bernie Rhinerson from San Diego Unified. I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. My guest is Ana Tintocalis, the KPBS education reporter, and she’s talking with us about the possibility of a parcel tax in San Diego to pay for schools. How big a majority do you – I think you may have mentioned this. You need a two-thirds majority to pass these parcel taxes, right?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah. Yeah, and so to try to pass a parcel tax is no easy task. Unlike school bond measures where you just need 55% voter approval, you need two-thirds, which is like 66% of the vote, which is very hard and so many school districts, smaller school districts, that have tried to do this have gotten so close to that 66% voter approval margin but they just haven’t been able to clench it. And I should say there’s been a lot of parcel tax passages but it tends to take place in smaller school districts and people say that’s because smaller school districts – smaller and more affluent, they have more money, they have this more direct connection to their administration and so they might be more willing to pay an extra tax. That’s different with big city school districts where you have so many socioeconomic factors and a lot of opposition to a tax.

FUDGE: I think most of those parcel taxes have also passed in northern California, right?

TINTOCALIS: Right, yeah. When I was talking to the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, they said, you know, well, that’s northern California, they’re always been tax happy. It’s different in Southern California.

FUDGE: Well, speaking of the Taxpayers Association, I think you got some reaction from them as well. Did they have something a little different to say from the folks at San Diego Unified?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, I mean, obviously they believe the parcel tax is a regressive tax in that it’s – there’s an issue of equity. If you have someone who’s living in La Jolla, paying a flat tax on their mansion and yet you’re also paying a flat tax on someone who is struggling with owning a condo in, say, Barrio Logan, there’s an equity issue there. So that’s something that they brought out. They’re also really concerned with the way the San Diego Unified is being governed because there’s been a lot of leadership turnover. They’re not quite – quite frankly, they don’t believe that the district might spend the money wisely. And I was talking to Larry Remer, who’s the district’s political consultant on this matter. He’s doing a lot of research in finding out whether a parcel tax would actually work in San Diego and would pass. And this is what he had to say about some concerns from taxpayer groups.

LARRY REMER (Political Consultant, San Diego Unified School District): I’ll be the first to admit that not every dollar that the schools get is spent perfectly and not every dime that the schools use is used in the best possible way. They’re as human as everybody else. But, by and large, the schools do educate our kids. I mean, and they actually, given the resources, do a pretty good job. I guess my favorite little bumper sticker on this is, you know, if you think education’s expensive, try ignorance.

FUDGE: And that’s political consultant Larry Remer. Ana, you did a feature story for Morning Edition on this and it was on, I think, yesterday or the day before. And you actually visited San Diego Unified – San Francisco Unified School District for your story because they’re the largest school district in California to pass a parcel tax. How did they manage to pass it?

TINTOCALIS: Well, it was really interested (sic), in San Francisco, they really took like a year to get their ducks in line and everything straight. They really worked on their reputation. They really worked on creating this huge, like citywide, campaign to pass this parcel tax. They brought in the mayor, Gavin Newsom. He was a big face on this campaign. The superintendent, who was a charismatic superintendent, they brought in the business community, they brought in the teachers’ union. They brought in parent groups and nonprofits. So you really have this solid block of the entire city saying we have to do this. And that – what I see is kind of different than what’s kind of going on right now in San Diego Unified. That very well might come together but they’re – the leadership here is a little bit more, you know, spread out. They’re – there’s not a unified block. It’s hard to hang this on one person. The district has an interim superintendent. And the – one of the school board members in San Francisco—she’s also the mayor’s education advisor—she said it’s really important for – to get the message clear and have everyone behind it. And she said it was really important for them to have a really charismatic, strong superintendent pushing this through.

HYDRA MENDOZA (Education Advisor, City of San Francisco): So it was really, really important for him because he’s the face. You know, he’s the one that’s going to say, yes, and I will manage things properly. And, yes, I will ensure that, you know, we utilize these dollars as best we can. And then the teachers’ union had to be standing right alongside him saying, yes, we will work together. Because the minute we – you show any kind of floundering, you know, people will be all over you. They will just be all over you.

FUDGE: And I guess it’s a fair question. Who would be the face of the parcel tax in San Diego? Mayor Sanders? You know, it’s hard to know.

TINTOCALIS: Exactly, and like I said, there’s an interim superintendent. When this – if this does get on the November ballot, we should have a new superintendent in place but we don’t know who that is just yet so it’s hard to hang this on one person.

FUDGE: Ana Tintocalis is the KPBS education reporter. We’re talking about parcel taxes. What other districts in California are now proposing, thinking about parcel taxes? I think there’s one big one, isn’t there?

TINTOCALIS: Well, San Diego Unified is the largest school district that’s…

FUDGE: Well, maybe I’ve got this wrong, Ana. What about L.A. Unified?

TINTOCALIS: L.A. Unified has always been kind of – they’ve floundered in their kind of efforts to get one on the ballot. Long Beach Unified also, that one failed that they put forward. Like I said, you mostly see smaller school districts be successful at this. Santa Monica-Malibu is probably the closest one in Southern California that passed this tax. You see a lot of them in northern California, San Mateo. But every year, the list of people that get on that list as, you know, okay, we’re going to push forward a parcel tax, it get – it grows and grows every year and I think that shows the distrust that parents, school officials, everyone has when it comes to education finance in the State of California.

FUDGE: Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to predict the future now. What are the chances that a parcel tax will actually be on the ballot in San Diego in November?

TINTOCALIS: Well, I think it is – there’s a very strong chance. The San Diego Unified School Board president, Richard Barrera, recently gave his State of the District address where he highlighted, listen, we’re going to move forward with this parcel tax idea, and I think that was a real signal to the community that we need your support, we’re going to push this. The district’s polling numbers show that most people are in favor of a $98.00 a year tax for the most part right now.

FUDGE: Most people.

TINTOCALIS: Most people. And, you know, the quest – the big question, though, is can you surpass or reach the 66% voter approval rate? And that is a very difficult task to do.

FUDGE: Well, Ana, thanks very much.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

FUDGE: Ana Tintocalis is the KPBS education reporter. She talked with us about the possibility of a parcel tax on the November ballot in the City of San Diego. I’m Tom Fudge filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Coming up next on These Days, we’ll talk about the short selling of homes and why it’s become so popular even though it can end up being a very painful task, so stay tuned for that. And when we return, we’ll take your questions on that at 888-895-KPBS.

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