Top Democrats and organized labor are pushing a ballot measure that would levy a tax on property owners within the expansive boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest public education system in the nation. The initiative is projected to generate approximately $500 million annually for the next 12 years but must be approved by a two-thirds supermajority of voters next Tuesday.
The school board decided that additional revenue is necessary to cover a massive budget shortfall after negotiating with the teachers union in January to end a six-day strike. Its solution, called Measure EE, would impose a 16 cents per-square-foot parcel tax on property owners based on the structures erected or affixed to their land – including commercial buildings, single-family homes, and apartments. Senior citizens and many low-income folks could apply for an exemption.
“We need financial resources to force the district to uphold our contract wins,” reads the website of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which represents more than 33,000 educators and staffers in the district. “Our strike successfully pressured LAUSD to tap into its huge reserve to offer a fair pay raise, lower class size, and hire more nurses, teacher-librarians, and counselors, but that reserve is one-time money.”
UTLA has emerged as a major funder of the Yes On EE campaign.
The L.A. School Report pointed out a recent column in the union’s newsletter, headlined, “Our strike left us hungry for more; Measure EE sets us up for next round of contract bargaining.”
“I want to be back at the table, with our solidarity intact, and with almost half a billion dollars a year in new Measure EE funding to make demands on,” wrote Daniel Barnhart, UTLA Secondary Vice President.
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl claims the teachers union is part of a “broad coalition” that “put EE on the ballot,” partnering with the school district, Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City Council, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) endorsed the measure, along with Democratic presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner said, “This is for the kids,” while sitting side-by-side with Caputo-Pearl on a recent episode of ABC 7 Eyewitness Newsmakers. “We do not have enough funding to do what we need to do to make sure every child gets a great education.”
Caputo-Pearl added: “The ballot language is very clear: class-size reduction, nurses, counselors, librarians, instructional materials. There are annual audits; there’s an oversight committee.”
The referendum’s wording also says the tax dollars would be used “to retain/attract quality teachers,” which, in education circles, translates to salary increases.
Opponents of the proposal argue that the district has a long history of mismanaging bond money, maintaining that the funds raised from the tax could be allocated for unfunded pension obligations, health benefits, and expanding the number of administrators.
The Pasadena Star-News reported:
The initial draft of the ballot measure prohibited the use of the tax dollars for “funding long-term healthcare or pension liabilities.” Two days later, the final draft quietly removed that language, replacing it with “legal settlements and liabilities” instead…
Without Measure EE, district officials acknowledge, LAUSD could become insolvent within the next three years and potentially trigger a state takeover. The district will burn through nearly all of its reserves by the 2020-21 fiscal year and end the following year more than $700 million in the hole…
LAUSD expects to spend $1.7 billion annually toward pensions and health care during the 2020-21 school year, an increase of nearly $400 million from 2016-17. Nearly a quarter of the revenues from per-pupil funding would not reach students that year.
According to the Los Angeles Times, takings from Measure EE would be “enough to close all or most of the gap between what the district already is spending and the revenue it receives from state and federal sources.”
J.F. Mailander, a political observer who has written about LAUSD for multiple local outlets, recounted an alphabet soup of voter-approved school bonds that he says are already live, some of which homeowners will continue paying until 2044.
“In 1997, the public entrusted to the district $2.4 billion in Proposition BB funds, to add new classroom seats. LAUSD now has more classroom seats than it needs, but the public continues to spend the money anyway,” he said. “In 2002, the public added $3.34 billion in Measure K funds to this kitty; the plea was the same as for Prop BB. Then in 2004, the public voted for $3.87 billion in Measure R funds, again for the same cause, and once again in 2005, to the tune of $3.985 billion on Measure Y funds. The district then hit the jackpot with voters in 2008, awarding the district $7 billion more in Measure Q funds.”
“What’s another billion to this district? All of this comes beyond what the State gives them – which is supposed to be enough.”
A taxpayer advocacy group filed a lawsuit against LAUSD over additional alterations to the ballot language which will be heard on June 6, two days after voters decide Measure EE’s fate.
City News Service reports:
The original language of the ballot measure, approved by the LAUSD board in February, stated that “habitable” square footage would be subject to tax. But that language was amended in March by Superintendent Austin Beutner, stating that the tax would affect “all buildings or structures” on a given property.
The change sparked outrage from some business groups who suggested that the district was trying to quietly expand the reach of the tax to generate additional funding.
Earlier this month, the school board voted unanimously to exempt enclosed residential or commercial parking garages from the tax.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @JeffreyCawood.