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Can a Constitutional Amendment Save California Schools?

New America Media, News Report, Anuja Seith Posted: Mar 20, 2010

As California public schools faced a flood of pink slips to some 22,000 teachers and other staff last Monday, one legislative plan to fund public education and save those jobs was drawing support from school officials and education advocates.

A constitutional amendment proposed by State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would allow school districts to approve a local parcel tax a special flat tax levied on properties -- with a 55 percent majority rather than the two-thirds majority that is currently required.

If the state cannot adequately help the local schools, then they have to help themselves, said Simitian. This is a tool that will allow local folks to make local choices about the local needs.

Last year more than 16,000 teachers lost their jobs, and in the last of couple of budget cycles approximately 10,000 classified school employees met the same fate. A one-time federal stimulus fund injection helped save many school jobs, but there wont be more. And in his current proposed budget, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans another $2.4 billion cut to public education.

Simitians proposal, SCA 6, known as the School District Parcel Taxes act, would allow local school districts to raise revenues by putting a flat parcel tax measure before voters. Such parcel taxes have been approved in some districts to enhance instructional programs, hire additional teachers, and support libraries, music, and arts programs.

According to Simitian the governors office has not offered any comment on the bill. He says since it is not a measure that the governor is required to sign he can stay neutral on it. After the measure is passed by a two-thirds majority of the legislature, it goes directly to the voters. By lowering the threshold, SCA 6 (2009) will help the schools raise revenue while giving individual districts the flexibility and power to fund the programs that are important to them.

Parcel taxes typically have less support in lower income communities, noted Arun Ramanathan, executive director of policy group Education Trust-West. The problem is that the threshold is very high which makes it difficult to get these taxes passed in the less affluent areas, Ramanathan said. It will be easier to get 55 percent majority in these areas rather the current two-thirds majority.

Both Troy Flint, spokesperson for Oakland Unified School District, and Rick LaPlante, Public Information Officer for New Haven Unified School District, expressed a similar view. We can get a majority vote but not the two-thirds majority vote to pass the parcel taxes, Laplante said. If Simitians bill passes, we will need 55 percent of votes which will give us a much better chance to get these taxes approved.

Though a few extra dollars from local parcel taxes might enable schools to reinstate some of their programs, it is yet to be seen if it can reduce the number of pink slips going out to the education personnel.

Though the bill is not a permanent fix or a cure for the system, if signed into a law it can help save some teaching or other jobs, Simitian said. It is a significant source of funding, and one of the reasons why it is receiving so much attention is the pink slips that are being sent around our school districts.
According to David Sanchez, president of California Teachers Association (CTA), last year, 25,000 notices were served and 16,000 jobs were lost. He says there is a good chance that another 16,000 might be lost this year. Local parcel taxes will allow school districts to fund different programs in their schools and restore programs like art, music and P.E. which will help to restore some of the jobs, said Sanchez.

Oakland schools are counting on parcel tax measures to raise needed money, said spokesperson Flynt. We anticipate raising approximately $20 million in revenue from parcel taxes, and that might be instrumental in preserving a few instructional or other staff jobs, he said. We might also be able to give salary raises for which unions have been lobbying. At this time we cannot grant those raises without the revenue that parcel taxes will generate.
However, neither Ramanathan nor LaPlante believes that parcel taxes can mitigate the onslaught of the economic crisis. It will give more control to the local communities, but it may not necessarily improve salaries or prevent lays offs. It will really depend on what the school districts decide to do with money, said Ramanathan.

LaPlante also noted that whether or not parcel taxes are able to save jobs will depend on the priorities of individual districts and how much money they are able to raise since different communities can tolerate different levels of taxes. While Berkeley and Marin County can afford two or three such taxes, he said, less affluent areas cannot contribute so much to public education.

But parcel taxes dont necessarily burden residents of lower income communities because those with hardships, such as people on fixed incomes and the elderly, can always apply for an exemption. The CTA, which supports such taxes, also notes that though these are hard times, in most cases parcel taxes fall below $150 a year, and given the current circumstances, all school districts desperately need money.

Simitian explained that local school districts can set parcel taxes at an amount that their communities can afford.

Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, also sees a leveling effect of Simitians bill. Until now, smaller and more affluent school communities had greater likelihood of success with parcel taxes, she said. But one of the goal of this bill is to make this tool available to a diverse array of school districts.

At present Simitians bill is said to have 22 votes and will need another five to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Senate.

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