Schools In Rich Neighborhoods Receive More Tax Dollars
A joint investigation by KPBS and the Watchdog Institute at San Diego State has revealed some public schools in San Diego County receive millions of additional dollars in public funding. In fact, some school districts have seen their budgets increase in recent years while others have laid off staff.
Gerry Kirkeby points to the three Spanish-style buildings, brightly white-washed, lining a leafy corner of one the country’s wealthiest communities, Rancho Sante Fe.
“We just recently built a huge new modern, wonderful school,” said Kirkeby, a real estate agent and long time resident of Rancho Santa Fe.
Rancho Santa Fe is also home to two of the highest-ranking public schools in California, which, despite a state budget crisis and cuts to public education, have seen a 25 percent increase in revenue since 2005.
A KPBS/Watchdog Institute investigation found the budgets of eight of San Diego County’s 42 public school districts have been steadily increasing in recent years – some of them providing thousands more dollars in per pupil funding than other publicly funded schools in less affluent neighborhoods.
The increases are not from privately run parent foundations, but rather, they are property tax dollars.
The districts, a majority of which are located in North County neighborhoods, received between $100 and $5,800 in additional revenue for each of their students last year – and that trend will continue next year, according to San Diego County Department of Education statistics. (Story continues below)
The extra funding comes from a series of court rulings and propositions during the past 40 years that have created a convoluted and, according to some, inequitable system of public education funding in California.
“Inequity has been the basis for many court challenges, as you know with Serrano in California, that was the basis of the complaint,” said Deborah Verstegen, an education professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of a national study on education finance.
In the 1968 case Serrano v. Priest, the California Supreme Court ordered the state to address the gap between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods. Wealthy neighborhoods could raise more money from property taxes for their schools than poor neighborhoods.
In an effort to close that education funding gap, the state introduced revenue limits in 1972, which put a ceiling on how much money schools could raise.
Then, the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 caused property tax revenues to drop. Most neighborhoods didn't and still don't raise enough money in local property taxes to reach their school revenue limit. So, the state has made up the difference.
But rising property values over the decades and shrinking state funding to schools have once again created a widening gap between rich and poor districts.
“Some districts, very few, about 124 or so in 2009-2010, have more than enough property taxes to meet their entitlement,” said Margaret Weston, an analyst with the Public Policy Institute of California. “They used to be called basic aid, and now we tend to call them excess tax districts.”
Basic aid or excess tax districts get to keep the extra property tax money, said Weston, who has studied the funding sources of the state’s 978 districts.
In Rancho Santa Fe, the additional funding helps the district reduce class size from a student-teacher radio of 32–1 to 17–1. The school district also hires music and art specialists. An additional 10 percent of the district’s operating budget comes from a parent-run private foundation.
State legislators have known about the inequity for years, and for the past two years have taken away some of the extra funding from the excess tax districts. But, not enough to level the playing field.
The state cut about $23 million in basic aid from the districts’ budgets in 2009 and 2010. During those same years, the districts’ combined local revenue hit $505 million.
“Variations in funding can also mean variations in opportunities to do well,” Verstegen said.
Rancho Santa Fe Superintendent Linda Delaney said rather than take away opportunity from her kids, the state ought to be providing it for all kids.
“I think it’s a funding issue and a systems issue,” Delaney said.
But for now, with a budget crisis in California, and more education cuts looming, that opportunity might come at too high a price – owning a home in Rancho Santa Fe.
“There’s a fixer upper right now I think for 965 (thousand dollars),” Kirkeby said.