Inside the L.A. ‘Parcel Tax’ Debate: Many Parents and Education Advocates Agree Schools Need More Money — They Just Don’t Trust LAUSD to Be a ‘Good Steward’ of the Funds
Parents and community advocates are divided on “Measure EE,” the Los Angeles Unified School District’s parcel tax proposal on the June ballot that would raise about $500 million a year over a 12-year period for schools.
However, a common thread connects them: They agree that schools need more funding, but there’s also “distrust” over whether the district would use the money to advance student learning.
“We have concerns about oversight of those funds,” said Vanessa Aramayo, executive director of Alliance for a Better Community, which is neutral on the measure but is working to increase awareness and voter turnout. The tax measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass, and there’s little else on the ballot to draw voters to the polls in the June 4 special election.
But among parents whom ABC works with, “There’s definitely a level of distrust,” Aramayo said.
“There’s a lot of concern on both sides. What happens if it passes, how is it going to be spent? And what happens if it doesn’t pass? We know that the district will go bankrupt faster, and that’s a huge area of concern.”
But “distrust is not reason enough not to invest in our children,” countered María Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. advocacy organization and supporter of the Yes on EE campaign. “If Measure EE does not pass, it would be detrimental to our kids. We cannot let that happen.”
Accountability has been one of the main concerns of the Vote No on Measure EE campaign, which includes advocacy groups for local businesses and taxpayers.
Proponents of the tax include Mayor Eric Garcetti, who stumped hard for it in his State of the City address this month, the L.A. City Council and labor unions including United Teachers Los Angeles and SEIU Local 99.
Ken Marek, whose daughter is a fifth-grader at Broadway Elementary in Venice, said, “The district first needs to focus on delivering an educational service that families want to go to and being responsive to parents’ needs and demonstrating, by doing that, that they are good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
In the six years that his daughter has been a district student and he’s been advocating for improvements, Marek said, “My experience has been that the bureaucracy in the district has been resistant to providing the things that parents want. So I feel that until they do that, I don’t think it’s right to go out and pick our pockets and get us to pay more.”
Marek suggested that instead of asking for more taxpayer money, the district should “lobby the state to ease the process of selling excess real estate.”
“As enrollment has declined, it is now underutilized. I don’t think it’s any secret that they’re cash poor. But they are real estate rich,” he said.
Laura Baz, who has a ninth-grader at a district high school in the San Fernando Valley, said she fully supports the tax measure but believes parents should monitor the district to make sure its use of the funding is “appropriate.”
“We need to rigorously and constantly monitor that money, and we can do that by we as parents actively participating in the decision-making process in our schools about how the money should be distributed and the [student] outcomes we expect,” Baz said in a phone interview in Spanish. She is a member of the district’s Parent Advisory Committee as well as the Community Advisory Committee and the Title I parent group.
“In the end, this is for our kids, whether you have children or not in LAUSD schools. We have grandchildren, nephews, nieces, kids that attend our schools who need our support. This is about their education.”
LAUSD’s ‘crying need’
Paul Robak, who has a seventh-grader and a high school senior, said he understands the reasons some people oppose the measure, but he supports it because there’s a “crying need” for more school funding.
“I’ve heard repeatedly, ‘Why should we be giving more money to the district? They’re already failing, they’re already doing a really poor job with the funds they have, schools are failing. Why should we give it even more money so they can misuse more money, not just for a year but for decades and even generations?’ I understand that,” Robak said. “However, if the parcel tax does not pass and schools continue the way they are with too little funding, schools continue to fail students, and students fall through the cracks. Whenever adults in the school have a problem, the ones in that same building who always, always lose, every single time, without exception, are the kids. Adults never, never lose, because they have their unions.”
Robak, who serves on two of the district’s three parent committees (Community Advisory and Parent Advisory committees), said that his message for people who represent businesses — such as the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, which is running a campaign against it — is that “If we don’t pass this — forget about the district for a minute, think about our kids. Do you want them to continue having not enough funding to get the public education they deserve?”
Robak believes that if the parcel tax passes, “everybody is going to be paying very close attention to how the district manages the funding.” He’s hearing that parents, particularly older generations, are concerned that “their kids’ schools are not funded as well as they used to be or should be,” so he’s optimistic it will pass.
Parent advocacy group Speak UP supports the measure but is also demanding “greater accountability” from the district.
“We do support it because we know that we need to increase the revenues to the district,” said Katie Braude, co-founder and executive director of Speak UP. “We also hope that the independent oversight committee will help ensure that these funds actually go to the classroom to benefit teachers and kids.”
Oversight committee proposal
To address concerns about accountability, the school board will vote Tuesday on a resolution that would create an Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee to “ensure the proceeds are used and distributed only for voter-approved purposes,” that expenditures are transparent and “that the district is held fiscally responsible to the public and taxpayers,” according to the resolution’s proposed language.
If approved, the board seeks “immediate establishment” of the oversight committee. Its nine members would meet at least quarterly and report annually on “the progress on measurable student achievement outcomes to result from the allocation and expenditure of Measure EE funds.”
Aramayo said any committee “should include the community in establishing that plan, and it should also take into account a consistent opportunity for the community to be able to provide input.” It’s not clear if parents can be appointed to the committee.
But whether establishing such a committee will overcome parents’ and community concerns about lackluster student achievement is unclear. Other fears are that the funds wouldn’t reach the students most in need — or might not reach schools at all and instead be spent on the district’s spiraling pension debt or the new teachers contract, which will cost $840 million through 2021. The district committed to hiring more counselors and librarians and reducing class sizes in grades 4 through 12 by one student in each of the next two years and by two more students in 2021-22.
Aramayo said that “if the district plans to add more librarians or more counselors across all schools, that’s not equitable spending. We have that concern. More funds should go to the schools with the highest needs, which have been identified by the community for years.”
She said that ABC, which works with mostly low-income Latino families living in L.A.’s southeast communities, is “in favor of revenues being raised but also concerned how the revenue will be used equitably among schools with the highest needs and how the new taxation will affect low-income families.”
Evelyn Alemán, a district parent and former member of L.A. Unified’s Parent Advisory Committee, said, “The biggest concern is if it’s going to be used for pensions and other benefits. … The district needs to be honest with voters, it needs to be transparent about it.” She was part of a group of Valley parents who met this month with school board vice president Nick Melvoin and staff members from Superintendent Austin Beutner’s office to talk about the parcel tax and district accountability.
“Are there going to be more students graduating from high school and going on to college, graduating college and career ready? How are we going to improve the reading levels, math proficiency levels? Improve test score levels? We don’t see any of that,” she said.
Melvoin acknowledged in a phone interview Friday that “We have a pension and health care crisis that is going to require dollars from the district, because until the board votes to reform it — and even when the board votes to reform it — there are still these promises made to employees that can’t disappear overnight. So there’s going to be some money that’s going to have to go to cover that. And whether that comes from the general fund or from the parcel tax … that’s just a reality.” But an oversight committee would report how much of the funds would go to health care and pensions and give the public a chance to react and respond, he said.
“I’m trying to address [parent] concerns, I’m meeting as always with whoever wants to talk about things, and talking about the school performance framework, and open data and unified enrollment and some of the good things that are happening,” Melvoin said.
“I’m not telling them that their concerns are crazy. What I am telling them is that people have to be honest with themselves about where they stood during the strike. There are a lot of people who were yelling — quite honestly at the board — to do whatever the teachers wanted and not wanting to listen to the other side, which was that we didn’t have the money, who now are saying, ‘Well, I don’t support the tax.’ … To say, ‘Give the teachers all that they want’ and then say, ‘Oh, but we’re not going to support you in the parcel tax’ is kind of contradictory.”
‘Guide it in the direction of the children’
Brenes of InnerCity Struggle said that, as a district parent, she also supports the parcel tax because “I think this is an opportunity for L.A. to become a model for the rest of the state and the nation on how a local area came together and stepped up and decided to invest its resources for high-needs children, their neighborhoods and their schools.”
Her organization is working to bring the community behind the measure by providing training volunteers, canvassing, phone banking and going door to door educating residents about the benefits of Measure EE, which she called a “very important solution” to address decades of underfunding for public education. “This is a step in the right direction for LAUSD,” she said.
“We know most resources come from the state, and this is an opportunity we have at the local level to close the disparity in terms of per-pupil spending, [an opportunity] for Los Angeles to invest in our children,” Brenes said. “We are focused on the children, and the fact that the funds would be dedicated to lower class sizes is beneficial to students of LAUSD, particularly in the highest-needs neighborhoods.”
Aramayo said that ABC is also focused on increasing voter turnout. “We have seen very dismal turnout rates in past elections. We see it as a responsibility to raise awareness. Whether you have children in the district or not, if you’re a homeowner, this is going to impact you,” she said. “For us, this is not about being on one side or the other. For us, it’s a matter of having the right information so you feel like you can make a good enough decision on your own.”
Aramayo added that Measure EE represents “an opportunity to raise money for L.A. schools and an important opportunity to do it right and to do it well, to show the public that they can be a good steward of this additional revenue and gain the public’s trust.”
Alemán plans to share as much information as she can with other parents about the measure before June 4.
“If not us, who have a direct interest in our kids’ future, who’s going to do it? We need to take control of this and guide it in the direction of the children.”
— Taylor Swaak contributed reporting to this article.
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