[guest post by JVW]
Three years ago this very week I chronicled the failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District to persuade its voters to pass a $500 million parcel tax measure designed to amp up funding for the district, which became a necessity when the district leadership foolishly caved to the striking teachers’ union and agreed to increases in wages and personnel despite not having the funding to back it. I suggested at the time that voters — even voters in decidedly left-leaning locales such as Los Angeles — were beginning to sour on the evergreen public employee union claim that more money is the answer to all community woes, and that perhaps this spirit would permeate throughout the state. Indeed, in fall 2020 as Joe Biden cruised to a massive victory in the Golden State, California voters rejected attempts to raise taxes on commercial properties even though the promise was that the lion’s share of the money would go to the schools.
On Tuesday, voters in the very tony and exclusive hamlet of Manhattan Beach (median home price: $3 million) went to the polls to determine if they would impose an annual $1,095 parcel tax on each home in order to raise an estimated $12 million per year for K-12 schools to plug a hole stemming from what proponents have deemed as underfunding from Sacramento (former Governor Jerry Brown pushed for a change in the state funding formula which now sends more money to needy school districts at the expense of well-off districts like Manhattan Beach). The clever, highly-educated, and dialed-in supporters of the tax increase pulled a controversial trick by having the parcel tax be proposed by local citizens rather than by the district, thereby routing the funds through the City of Manhattan Beach rather than the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. This difference allowed for the proposal to be passed with a bare majority of voters rather than by the state constitution-required two-thirds majority. This also had the benefit, supporters argued, of ensuring strict taxpayer oversight of the funds since MBUSD, which serves 6,500 students at eight public schools, would not control how this extra money was apportioned. The measure, which would be in place for twelve years before sunsetting, also included an automatic process for increasing the parcel tax to account for inflation (with a five percent annual cap on the increase) which naturally did not sit well in the current political climate.
Opponents of the parcel tax pointed out that the district, despite receiving from the state approximately $2,000 less per student than the mean, continues to maintains high ratings for the quality of education offered, and generally ranks somewhere in the top 5% to 7% of all California districts. Teachers still prize a job in the district, even though living in the community is all but unaffordable on a teaching salary, and open positions tend to attract a number of highly-qualified candidates. Opponents also point out that enrollment in the district has been slowly declining, mostly due to young families being priced out of homes in the district and very wealthy families choosing to send their children to fancy private schools. They questioned whether dumping $12 million more per year, especially without any detailed plans for how it was to be spent, was a particularly wise idea, and they resented the fact that proponents tried an end-run around the supermajority requirement. Debates were held, letters to the editor were exchanged in local media, allegations of dirty campaigning were hurled, but in the run-up to the vote the public consensus seemed to be that the wealthy residents of Manhattan Beach would open up their pocketbooks and give the schools all the money they could possibly desire.
Instead, the initiative failed miserably, by what may turn out to be a 70% to 30% margin by the time all votes are counted.
Clearly there was a quiet but pervasive groundswell against this idea, even if proponents were successful in steering the narrative as it appeared in the media. (At this point it should be mentioned that MBUSD and, more importantly, the teachers’ union were strong supporters of the parcel tax.) This is an unmistakable demonstration of Richard Nixon’s evocation of a “silent majority.” Needless to say, the local progressive chattering classes are stunned at the total repudiation of their plan. The opponents of the tax are relieved and thus far extending olive branches to the tax’s supporters, recognizing that residents need to do more to beef up district funding and proposing that both sides meet to hammer out a solution that all sides can accept. Manhattan Beach voters aren’t necessarily against more funding for the schools, but they won’t accept vague plans backed by clever tricks as the means of enacting it. (And don’t worry about the MBUSD being threadbare and broke this fall; they are backed by a parent-run educational foundation which just raised $1.3 million for the schools at their annual wine auction.)
Despite the current mania in Washington DC and Sacramento for throwing taxpayer money around like an NBA team at a strip club, Tuesday’s vote along with the aforementioned LAUSD vote in 2019 and citizens in several other school districts who have pointedly refused to raise taxes to increase district budgets suggests that at least at a local level there are Californians — even those who vote Democrat — who don’t like writing blank checks when it is clearly their own money behind it. Maybe someday the good citizens of this great state will extrapolate their local wisdom onto a larger scale. November might be a good time to try that out.