Los Angeles school officials once saw the January teachers’ strike as a calamity. Now they realize it created an opportunity.
Angelenos opened their hearts to teachers who talked of poor conditions at schools — and now they will have the chance to open their wallets in a June 4 special election.
The Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to ask voters to raise their taxes in support of schools — the same voters who backed striking teachers by honking horns, handing out tamales, walking picket lines and keeping kids at home.
The tax measure, if approved, is projected to raise about $500 million a year, 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.
The tax would be calculated at 16 cents per square foot on a property owner’s habitable indoor space. It would apply to commercial buildings as well as single-family homes and apartments. There would be exemptions for senior citizens and those relying on disability payments to get by.
The levy, called parcel tax, will go before all voters living within the L.A. Unified School District and would require a two-thirds majority. It would be in effect for 12 years.
To sell the tax, the nation’s second-largest school system will assert that the money would do more than merely preserve the status quo.
The approved wording of the tax measure hits on themes teachers raised during the strike, promising that the additional funding would retain and attract quality teachers, reduce class sizes and provide more counseling, nursing and library services as well as support coursework in science, math, preschool, career education and the arts, while also ensuring safe and well-maintained schools. In other words, L.A. Unified wants more resources — on top of a $7.5-billion budget — to carry out the essence of its work.
Officials said they are ready to make the pitch.
“Education continues to be at the forefront of what working people want to invest in,” said school board President Monica Garcia. “Our job is to figure out: Can we play offense?”
“Many people judge our schools: ‘You waste money and the kids are loud,’” said board member Richard Vladovic. “You don’t know about the million miracles that occur in our schools every day.”
“The one thing we don’t want to do is fail,” said board member George McKenna. The district, he said, must go “all out” in its campaign.
An analysis provided by the office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti says half of L.A. Unified homeowners would pay less than $235 a year. Most L.A. Unified homeowners would pay $100 to $450 a year. Garcetti supports the tax.
“There’s no higher priority for me and for this region than improving the quality of public education,” the mayor said Thursday. “We need to do it for our kids. We need to do it for our economy. We need to do it for our future.”
He emphasized the power of the walkout: “We start from a very strong base because there is the highest awareness of the needs of our schools that I’ve experienced in my adult life as a result of the strike and an increased focus nationally on public education.”
The tax measure came together quickly after results were compiled from a poll commissioned by L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner in the wake of the six-day action by members of United Teachers Los Angeles. The poll indicated growth in support for increased funding of public education.
But pollsters also warned that the strike effect could fade, which prompted officials to place the tax increase on the June ballot rather than wait for November or even next year. The sooner the money could be approved, officials said, the sooner it could flow to the schools. The deadline for getting on the June ballot is the end of next week.
At a special board meeting Thursday, speakers raised various concerns.
Advocates of charter schools want a proportionate share of proceeds for these privately operated, publicly funded campuses.
“Public charter school students are entitled to the same level and quality of educational services,” said Roxann Nazario, who has a child at a charter in the San Fernando Valley. “I ask that you stand for all kids.”
Cassy Horton, an official with the California Charter Schools Assn., objected to vague draft language that said money would be distributed to charters “fairly.” Charters serve nearly 20% of district students and should expect about $100 million of an annual $500-million levy, she said.
The final version struck out “fairly.”
But downtown resident Isaac Abdul Haqq took the opposite view.
“We don’t want our tax dollars going to the charter industry,” he said. “This has just been thrust upon us without any real community input.”
The teachers union during the strike spoke out for a cap on new charters, which compete with L.A. Unified for students.
Other speakers wanted the tax to end sooner or called for stronger accountability. A hospital industry representative said hospitals should be exempted. The Chamber of Commerce wanted a flat tax per property.
Board members listened but made no further changes, saying that that the measure already incorporated various compromises and that time was of the essence.
“This will make things better and I’ll take better,” board member Nick Melvoin said.