LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Voters in the Los Angeles Unified School District will head to the polls today to decide whether to implement a parcel tax to generate millions of dollars for public education, but the measure is facing stiff opposition from the business community and a taxpayer advocacy group.
Measure EE would impose a parcel tax of 16 cents per square foot of building improvements on properties within the district. LAUSD officials have estimated the tax would raise about $500 million a year for 12 years. The proposal needs to be approved by two-thirds of voters -- a difficult benchmark to reach, particularly in what is envisioned as a low-turnout election.
But winning approval of the tax is considered vital for the district, which is relying on the new revenue source to help cover the costs of staffing and salary agreements it made with the United Teachers Los Angeles union to resolve a crippling teachers' strike earlier this year.
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, who are often at loggerheads politically, have been presenting a unified front on the campaign trail in support of the measure, insisting it is vital for district's financial future.
The measure also has the backing of political heavyweights, led by Mayor Eric Garcetti. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls have also stumped in favor of the measure, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
“Voting yes on EE will reduce class sizes and add nurses, counselors and arts and music in our local schools,” Garcetti said as he urged people to go to the polls. “If people stay home, nothing changes for our children, and the future for all of us will pay the price.”
But the measure is vocally opposed by business interests, led by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber contends there is no guarantee the money raised by the measure will go toward reducing classroom size or funding nurses and librarians in schools -- all while the district has no plan for addressing its “unfunded pension obligations, increasing healthcare costs or cost structure of a large organization with declining student enrollment.”
“We agree with the goal of having a strong public education system -- it's essential and we will keep fighting for it,” chamber President/CEO Maria Salinas said. “But Measure EE is not the answer and we need to say no to this rushed tax measure.”
LAUSD officials insist, however, that there will be an independent oversight committee monitoring the use of money raised by the tax.
“The committee will help ensure every dollar is going to support schools and the needs and education of our students,” Beutner said.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit last month seeking to block Tuesday's election, accusing the district of violating the state's open-meeting law in the way it placed the measure on the ballot. A judge declined to block the election, but scheduled a hearing for Thursday to discuss the issues.
The suit contends the district acted illegally by changing the wording of the measure after it was approved by the board in February. The original language of the ballot measure stated that “habitable” square footage would be subject to the tax. But that language was amended in March by Beutner, stating 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 levy to generate additional funding by taxing structures such as parking garages.
In response to the concerns, the LAUSD board in early May approved a resolution affirming that the levy excludes residential or commercial parking structures.
Yusef Robb of the Yes on EE campaign blasted the allegations in the HJTA lawsuit and others accusing the district of doctoring the wording of the measure.
“This is just flim-flam from a lobbyist-led campaign that's twisting the facts and the law to keep their clients from paying their fair share for our neighborhood schools,” Robb said.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has also filed complaints with the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the District Attorney's Office, accusing the district of using public resources to campaign on behalf of the measure.
“Everything from huge Measure EE banners festooning school grounds, cajoling school personnel to spend district time on the EE campaign, raffles set up by the district, sending mail to targeted voters and using school children as conduits for both campaign material and voter data needs to be investigated,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
LAUSD attorney David Holmquist dismissed the association's accusations, calling them “an unfortunate attempt to manufacture a false media story.”
“They are frivolous and wholly lacking in merit,” Holmquist said. “Voters should understand this is a referendum on the need for local funding to support Los Angeles public schools.”