Waging a years-long battle for more school funding

Sen. Joe Simitian gets an “A” for effort. In fact, he might even be the post-term limits Legislature’s perspicacity poster child.

While not the decade it took Jim Costa to win approval of legislation moving California’s presidential primary forward, it took Simitian six years to pass a measure requiring hands-free use of cell phones while driving.

He’s been as tireless – but not as successful – on a measure he and some 150 school districts contend will help them better control their financial destinies.

In 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and now 2011 Simitian has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow parcel taxes sought by school districts to be approved by a 55-percent rather than a two-thirds vote.

“If the state either can’t or won’t fund public education adequately, the least we can do is give local communities the opportunity to make local choices about their kids,” Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, told Capitol Weekly.

California is the only state that allows school districts to levy parcel taxes, which are flat-rate assessments not based on the value of the property being taxed.

Unlike bonds, which are earmarked for capital improvements, parcel tax revenue pays for operating expenses or other district priorities.

Opponents, like the California Taxpayers Association and the California Association of Realtors, argue that parcel taxes are regressive – like the sales tax – because a family of four with $40,000 in annual income would pay the same as Warren Buffett.

“Taxes should be based on an individual’s ability to pay the tax. Parcel taxes are specific dollar amounts levied on every property in a given taxing district without regard to a taxpayer’s income,” the taxpayers association writes in opposition.

“When differing factions of the population dispute the virtues of taxation, a two-thirds vote ensures that direct democracy unites the populous, rather than creating animosity,” the association concludes.

Simitian counters that his measure requires a two-thirds vote of the school board – in most districts four of five board members – in order to place the question before voters.

Additionally, his constitutional amendment, SCA 5, caps the size of a parcel tax at $250 and requires the school board to tell voters within the district what the money will be used for.
And, under the measure, if districts want to maintain the existing two-thirds approval threshold they are welcome to.

In the past decade, parcel tax measures on the ballot have ranged from $26 to $765 per parcel. Some are permanent; some last for a finite number of years. Most, however, fell below Simitian’s proposed $250 cap.

Interest by districts in using parcel taxes as a funding mechanism has increased in recent years, driven in part by the state’s more than $12 billion in reductions in support for public schools.

“SCA 5 could enhance the ability of funding resources and mitigate the impact of the horrific cuts schools have taken these past several years,” writes the California Teachers Association in support.

“A 55 percent vote threshold for parcel taxes to help provide additional funding for local school districts, community colleges and county offices of education is a more realistic approach to the current funding shortfall our schools are facing.”

The 55 percent threshold isn’t without precedent. In 2000, voters approved Proposition 39, which lowered to 55 percent the vote threshold to approve school bonds.
Prior to its passage, about 60 percent of school bonds exceeded the two-thirds majority vote. After its passage, about 75 percent.

In November 2010, 47 of 63 school and community college bond measures passed, including a $280 million bond measure for the Fresno Unified School District and $349 million for the Ohlone Community College District in Alameda County.

Parcel taxes fared much poorer: Just two of 18 proposals were approved.  Both of the winners were in Alameda County: Berkeley Unified and Fremont Unified.

Of the 16 that lost, 10 would have passed if Simitian’s constitutional amendment had been placed on the ballot and approved by voters.

Three other proposals hovered close to 55 percent. Auburn Union School District in Placer County had 54.83 percent in favor. John Swett Unified School District in Contra Costa County had 54.16 percent in support and Pomona Unified School District had 54.63 percent of the vote.

Simitian’s measure wouldn’t have helped Travis Unified School District in Solano County, which received just 43 percent of the vote in favor of an increased tax.

Nor would it have helped the Cutler-Ores Unified School District in Fresno County whose constituents voted down both a bond and a parcel tax, according to statistics compiled by the Coalition for Adequate School Housing.

From 1983 through November 2010, voters approved 289 school-related parcel taxes out of 542 proposals, according to EdSource, which notes that 92 percent of the measures received at least a majority vote.

Between 2001 and June 2009, 132 of the state’s roughly 1,000 school districts put parcel tax measures on the ballot. Of them, 83 passed – 66 in the Bay Area.

“It hasn’t been a Southern California phenomenon,” said Simitian. “It just hasn’t been a widely used tool.”

In most cases, it seems the tool is often successfully used in districts in higher income areas.

Districts in Novato, Piedmont, Palos Verdes, La Canada, Cupertino, San Marino, San Ramon, Bolinas, Orinda, Dublin, Pacific Grove and Santa Barbara have approved parcel taxes since November 2008.

Santa Barbara, for instance, levied a $23 per parcel tax. San Marino, $695 for six years.

In his past four attempts, Simitian has never been able to get his constitutional amendment out of the house of origin because it requires a two-thirds vote to place it on the ballot.
And just as Republican lawmakers have balked at giving Gov. Jerry Brown the two votes needed in each house to place on the ballot his proposal to extend taxes set to expire this year, GOP lawmakers consider a vote for Simitian’s measure, a “pro-tax” vote.

The Catch-22 is that the greatest chance for the constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot is a state fiscal condition so dire that support for public schools falls to a level that demands punting most of the fiscal responsibility to them.

Not surprisingly, Simitian thinks that time has come.

“I have always taken the view that in order to garner two-thirds for this measure, things are going to have to look pretty bleak. And if ever things looked pretty bleak, it’s this year.”

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