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Political Analysis: San Diego Unified Explores a Parcel Tax

Editor's note: The San Diego Unified teachers union has not promoted the parcel tax proposal, as was stated during the interview. We regret the error.

Political Analysis: San Diego Unified Explores a Parcel Tax
The San Diego Teachers Union is urging the San Diego Unified school district to explore a parcel tax for local school funding. Now, the school district has agreed to begin a feasibility study.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego Unified School District has voted to conduct a feasibility study about placing a parcel tax proposal on the ballot. Supporters say the new tax on property owners would generate a local source of funding for the school district. The state has cut close to $90 million from the district’s budget for the upcoming school year and more cuts are anticipated next year. The parcel tax idea has already generated protests from the San Diego Taxpayer Association, and many people believe such a measure has little change of gaining the two-thirds majority from voters it would need to be approved. But it is a proposal promoted by the San Diego Teachers Union, which has several supporters on the current San Diego Unified school board. To help us sort out this issue that has implications for the quality of San Diego schools, the balance of power at San Diego Unified District and, of course, property owners’ budgets, is my guest KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.


GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning to you, Maureen. Let’s sort this baby out.

CAVANAUGH: And we want the help of our listeners, too.

PENNER: Of course.

CAVANAUGH: Listeners invited to join our conversation this morning. What do you think about placing a flat fee on homeowners in San Diego to generate some local revenue for the San Diego School District? Give us a call with your thoughts, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Gloria, tell us more about where this proposal came from.

PENNER: I will. Superintendent Terry Greer recommended that the trustees approve spending this $130,000.00 – up to $130,000.00 to hire a political consultant to study the concept of a parcel tax because much needed revenue is certainly there for the school. I mean, it’s not there and it’s certainly needed. But the question is, you know, will San Diegans vote to tax themselves? And so at this point, if the research pans out, the tax initiative could be rolled out in time for the November 2010 election. That’s a year from November. And you had mentioned that the parcel – parcels would be homes and houses, it would also be businesses.



PENNER: It’s every parcel in San Diego would be taxed at a flat rate.

CAVANAUGH: And what would that rate be?

PENNER: That’s a hundred dollars.

CAVANAUGH: A hundred dollars…

PENNER: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …per property owner.

PENNER: Right, and so, you know, there’s a question whether people—at least two-thirds of the people in the San Diego District would be willing to spend $100.00 to do various things for the schools that may not be done during this very tough budget year.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Now do we know how much money this could possibly generate for San Diego Unified?

PENNER: Well, last year when a similar effort was briefly considered, the proponents said a parcel tax could generate $30 million and that $30 million could restore, you know, some of that—actually, it’s closer to $100 million that was cut for this coming school year.

CAVANAUGH: Now how has San Diego Unified School District coped with the budget cuts coming from the state this year?

PENNER: Well, they’ve coped not by firing any teachers. There were no layoffs, which was rather amazing. But they said that this is – this was possible because about 1,000 teachers qualified for early retirement. I don’t know how many of them took it. The numbers could be as many as 500 and they took early retirement. So nobody had to be laid off but other reductions were made, reductions in healthcare benefits, for example. The co-pays went up. There was a limit on which insurance companies you could use. Reductions in class size, pretty significant ones. For example, $16 million was saved by increasing the average class size in grades kindergarten through third by four students. That’s a lot of money. And then there are the four-day furloughs, and that saved the district $10 million. I’ll give you one more example of how much money was saved by changing class sizes. In the GATE program, that’s the program for Gifted and Talented Children, that one they raised the ratio, the teacher ratio, from 23 students per teacher to 25 students per teacher and that saved them $8 million. So there was a way. And perhaps the one that got the most attraction was eliminating the magnet program transportation, transporting kids to magnet programs. That saved them another $10 million.

CAVANAUGH: Right, those buses are gone. Now is there a notion – Let me put it this way, Los Angeles has taken another route of doing this. They have laid off hundreds of teachers up there because of the budget cuts, and I read that there’s a notion that the San Diego Teachers Union was able to exert its power on the school board, the city school board, in order to perhaps not get any – to secure no layoffs for teachers.

PENNER: Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, it was surprising, I think, that with the drop in enrollment for the San Diego Unified School District, and considerable drop, from 142,000-plus students in 2000 down to 132,000-plus in 2008. That’s a drop of 10,000 students. One would have thought that you wouldn’t need as many teachers. But no teachers were laid off and I think that that’s quite significant. In addition to that, the school board is moving toward something called a project labor agreement for that $2.1 billion bond that was approved by the voters last November. This would give unions a monopoly on school construction projects, meaning that they would have to hire union labor for those projects. Gives you an idea of the power of the unions. And there was one other element that they’re looking at and it’s called maintenance of standards, and that would basically deem that teachers’ classroom duties cannot change unless the union approves those changes. And they would have to remain basically the same as they were back to I think it was June 2008. Now that’s significant because it means if you want to give the teachers extra or different kinds of responsibilities, maybe patrolling the playground or supervising the lunchroom or things that were not in effect in 2008—and I think it was 2008, yeah, it was—that the union would be able to say, no, you can’t or, yes, you can.

CAVANAUGH: And this all comes back to more support on the school board, the San Diego Unified School Board for the teachers union.

PENNER: Well, there are five members of the school board and three of them have been pretty consistently supportive of the unions. Shelia Jackson, who is the chair, John Lee Evans and Richard Barerra, both of them relatively new. But the two, I was going to say old-timers, I don’t know if they’d appreciate that, John Debeck and Catherine Nakamura basically are not aficionados of the unions.

CAVANAUGH: We have so many calls, Gloria. We have to go and take some.

PENNER: Oh, good, let’s hear them.

CAVANAUGH: Alex is calling us from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Alex, and welcome to These Days.

ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): …you for taking my call. I’ll have this property for the past 15 years and I don’t have any kids. I’m not going to be planning on having any kids. Yet in the district that I live, I’ve been paying extra amounts for even the – I live in the Poway Unified School District, actually Rancho Bernardo. I’m paying taxes already for the school district. My concern and comment is why don’t we have tax on having kids. I mean, I’m not – I’m serious, I’m serious. If I’m not having any kids, I’m not planning on having kids why am I paying extra for the kids that already, I mean, that there are already. And if the parents are going to have the kids, let them have the responsibility of paying for the kids.

PENNER: Well, Alex, that’s really an interesting idea. That might be another way of exercising birth control or non-birth control if you get – if you have to pay for having kids. But, you know, it’s something called the public good that when you pay that $100.00 for your parcel tax, that you are thinking in terms of the public as a whole and not individual families. The workforce of the future is what we’re educating now and that workforce of the future is going to help to pay your social security if you – if we still have social security by the time you’re ready to collect it. So, you know, there is a positive in terms of what this would do for society as a whole to keep the schools at a higher level of quality if the $100.00 a parcel would help do that.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed. And that is the argument of supporters of this parcel tax proposal for San Diego Unified School District. Let’s hear from Ernest in Mission Hills. Good morning, Ernest, and welcome to These Days.

ERNEST (Caller, Mission Hills): Thank you. Yeah, I’m a little divided on this issue, not so much on the issue itself. I think we absolutely should be paying taxes for the schools. I don’t think that we’re over taxed and we benefit as a society from an educated population, not just in economic terms but educated people with good jobs don’t commit crimes generally. They don’t break into people’s homes or cars. It’s a part of maintaining a civilized society. Now the only area where I really disagree is I don’t believe Larry Remer should be getting $130,000.00 to conduct a study to find out whether or not this is feasible. I think this is a proper plan and I don’t think it needs to be polled to find out whether it’s feasible. And a part of me really does think that paying Larry Remer this money might just be – that might be a political payoff. I don’t think that the taxes proposed are a problem.

PENNER: Well, you know, Larry Remer does have a history of doing well with school initiatives. He was the lead consultant on the last two on Proposition S in 2008. He ran that $2.1 billion Proposition S effort, and then the $1.51 billion Proposition MM in 1998, so he sure has the experience. And he’s been around for a very long time. He tends to run campaigns for people who are pro-labor, he tends to run campaigns for Democrats. But the truth is that he also ran the campaign for Ron Roberts who wanted to be mayor a number of years ago and Ron Roberts is not a Democrat, so he can go on both sides. By the way, it’s up to $130,000.00. I think if Larry’s poll shows that people are not in favor of this, it might cut the whole thing short and he may not earn the whole $130,000.00 but if the poll is favorable, then Larry may very well have to go up to Sacramento and try to convince the legislators up there to reduce that two-thirds down to either a super majority of 55% or a majority, if that can be done. And his job also will be to write the ballot initiative, so he’s got a lot to do.

CAVANAUGH: And let us just remind our listeners that last night the San Diego City Unified School District voted in favor of this feasibility study which includes hiring political consultant Larry Remer to conduct the study and they are paying him up to $130,000.00.

PENNER: That’s correct.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call now. Juliana in Pacific Beach. Good morning, Juliana.

JULIANA (Caller, Pacific Beach): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I have so much to say here. I’m a teacher with the school district and I have a question, number one, about will this property tax expire after a time? In other words, can property payers maybe pay this for two years and then when the budget in California recovers the property tax then is gone? And the second thing I wanted to do was to kind of make a plea to the public. Education has got to change. I was just at a workshop and it is very interesting how you can wake up in a hospital bed today versus 100 years ago and you wouldn’t recognize the place.

But if you went to sleep 100 years ago and woke up in a classroom today, you’d know exactly where you are. We have got to train our kids for the 20th – the 21st century global economy. This means we need to remodel 60, 70 year old classrooms, implement technology, and then train teachers so that this technology actually gets used. And I want to know if any of these property taxes are going to pay for that.

PENNER: Okay, well, you know, I cannot answer that specifically. I don’t know how the property tax is being divvied up. But what I can say is that if this proposed parcel tax is passed, it would be the first in the county. We have never had anything like this pass before. But in last November’s election, 17 of 21 school parcel taxes proposed across California passed, which is kind of interesting, and voters were also very kind to nearly all education tax measures last year. In San Diego, all seven county school bonds passed, and of the 92 that were statewide, 85 passed. So I think people are thinking positively about the individual responsibility to fund education.

CAVANAUGH: And is there anything is this proposal that has a sunset clause?

PENNER: Not – Well, the proposal – Not in the proposal and, remember, the ballot initiative hasn’t been…

CAVANAUGH: Written yet.

PENNER: …written yet, so Larry Remer and whoever else will analyze the feedback they get from people that they poll. I’m sure that they’re going to be having – I know they’re going to be having a lot of public meetings and they are looking forward to support from parents and teachers as sort of the lead groups that will lead the rest of our county or district into it.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Doran from Jamul is calling. Hi, Doran. Welcome to These Days.

DORAN (Caller, Jamul): Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I’d just like to make an important clarification for your listeners. This proposed tax, it’s not a property tax, it’s a parcel tax.

PENNER: That’s right.

DORAN: And it is not a flat fee. Properties that are bigger than a quarter of an acre, typically are divided into a number of parcels and you’ll be paying – the homeowners will be paying for each of the parcels that constitutes their property. In some cases, that could be a number of parcels so for people like that, the cost goes up. And that’s not very fair, a single family that lives on an acre or two, especially in the outlying, rural communities, those people will be paying the lion’s share of this parcel tax.

CAVANAUGH: But, of course, this is for the San Diego Unified School District, which is largely in the City of San Diego. So outlying districts don’t really have much to do with this.

PENNER: But your…

DORAN: Well, I see but even within the districts within the San Diego City proper, there are a number of large properties…

CAVANAUGH: I’m sure you’re right.

DORAN: …that will pay unfairly in this parcel tax.

PENNER: Well, it is – At this point, the way it’s outlined is that parcel taxes assign a flat fee per parcel, so if you’re saying people live on several parcels then you’re making sense there and that sounds right. But, as I say, nothing has been written yet and so we’re going to have to wait and see.

CAVANAUGH: Well, remind us because we are running up against the clock, what happens next now? This feasibility study will be conducted. When will it be completed? And when could the proposal get on the ballot again?

PENNER: Okay, I spoke to County Registrar Deborah Siler yesterday and she says that August 6th of 2010 would be the deadline for it to get on the ballot and that would be for the November 2010 ballot. So he’s got a year to see whether it’s feasible, to prepare the ballot initiative, to lobby Sacramento to change the rules. It’s a big job.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much. It was a lot of interest in this topic. Thank you, Gloria.

PENNER: You’re welcome, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent, host of Editors Roundtable on KPBS, and the host of KPBS Television’s new weekly news program, San Diego Week, Friday nights at 7:00. You can read her weekly bog – blog, that is, which this week will be about the parcel tax, on our website at And we got an awful lot of callers. I encourage you to go online to continue this conversation at Stay with us. These Days continues in a moment here on KPBS.