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S.D. School Districts Turn To Parcel Tax To Offset Education Cuts

Audio

Aired 3/31/10

Public school districts up and down California are turning to a parcel tax as way to offset deep budget cuts. It's also a way to get around Proposition 13, which capped property taxes that help fund education 32 years ago.

— Public school districts up and down California are turning to a parcel tax as way to offset deep budget cuts. It's also a way to get around Proposition 13, which capped property taxes that help fund education 32 years ago.

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.

Megan Caluza is a special education teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District. The district’s parcel tax helps boost her overall salary every year.
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Above: Megan Caluza is a special education teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District. The district’s parcel tax helps boost her overall salary every year.

Danielle Zdunich is a first grade teacher at McKinley Elementary in San Diego. She says this year her class size has nearly doubled.

“Last year I had 12 kids in my class so I was able to space them out a little more and give them a bit more distance between one another,” Zdunich said. “This year they're crammed in there.”

Deep budget cuts have forced the district to add more students to almost every class, in every grade. Teachers say they can't give students individualized attention and the crowded classrooms create too many distractions.

Sandy Mattson's 8-year-old daughter goes to McKinley. She says teachers are really struggling.

“More and more of their energy goes into that classroom management and I hear my daughter talking more about who got in trouble today versus what they were learning that day,” Mattson said.

San Diego district officials say a parcel tax could help.

A parcel tax levies a flat fee for every parcel of land a resident owns regardless of what it's worth. That money goes directly to the school district and not Sacramento. In San Diego Unified, the money would be used to hire more teachers, which would help to lower class sizes. The tax would cost residents $98 a year for five years. But it requires a two-thirds vote to pass such a tax.

San Francisco Unified School District is the only large urban school district to do that in California. In San Francisco, residents voted two years ago to pay a $198 annual fee. That boosts teacher salaries, and pays them bonuses to work in challenging schools and to take on tough assignments.

Megan Caluza teaches at El Dorado Elementary in San Francisco. The school serves a public housing project. She receives a bonus for staying at the school and a stipend for being a special education teacher thanks to the parcel tax.

“I felt overjoyed that it was just on the ballot,” Caluza recalls. “When it was passed, I thought this is why I went into teaching because people really do care.”

And Caluza says teachers, in turn, care more about the district and want to stay here.

But San Francisco's parcel tax is an exception. Los Angeles and Long Beach Unified school districts have failed to pass similar measures.

Hydra Mendoza is a San Francisco school board member and the mayor's education adviser. She credits strong city leadership in support of the tax. She says everyone has a new found sense of ownership in the district.

“Now we got money coming from my neighbor, your neighbor, their cousin,” Mendoza said. “It's a very different thing than having it come down from the state and not knowing who is involved with this. I think the local support feels very different.”

San Diego may not be able to mount the same kind of civic campaign that San Francisco launched.

The San Diego school district does not have a permanent superintendent in place. With unemployment at an all time high in San Diego, fewer people might want to pay for the tax. There's already opposition from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

“San Francisco has always been a tax happy city. And that is not true of San Diego,” said Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego Taxpayers Association.

Lutar doesn't trust the district would spend a parcel tax wisely, and she says the fee is unfair.

“With a parcel tax, someone living in a mansion in La Jolla would be paying the same amount as someone living in a modest condo in City Heights or Barrio Logan or any other community for that matter.”

San Diego district officials say they will continue to move forward with their parcel tax plan. They say their research shows parents would rather spend their local dollars on local schools than leave them at the mercy of state funding.

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