Could LAUSD Tax Its Way Out Of A Budget Crisis? Better Question: Will Voters Let Them?

FILE - Los Angeles Unified School Board member Mónica García (center) speaks during a meeting, as colleagues George McKenna (left), Scott Schmerelson (right) and district staff (rear) listen. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

If the Los Angeles Unified School District is so strapped for cash these days, school board member George McKenna recently asked, why can't the district simply raise taxes?

LAUSD could put the question on the ballot and ask voters to approve it. "The longer we wait," McKenna argued last month, "the longer we go without solving the problem."

The question is whether voters would get on board — and whether L.A. Unified ends up with egg on its face if they don't.

KPCC/LAist recently obtained the district's internal poll numbers which show the vote on a district-wide tax hike would be a very close call this November — perhaps too close for LAUSD staff's comfort.

"There is not sufficient support in November 2018," district staff told board members in a July 2 memo, "for a parcel tax of sufficient size to eliminate the projected 2020 [budget] deficit."

THE POLL RESULTS

The district's exploring a type of tax called a "parcel tax." It's sort of like a property tax, but unlike normal property taxes, a parcel tax is not tied to a home's value. In this case, LAUSD is exploring whether to charge a flat fee to the owner of every property in the county, regardless of whether that property is a modest home or a sprawling mansion.

Charging a tax of $610 per parcel would raise around $500 million annually. That's the kind of money district officials say they would need to balance the budget in 2021-22, when officials forecast a $468 million shortfall.

According to the polling KPCC obtained, a $610 parcel tax falls short of the two-thirds majority it would need to pass. After being told arguments for and against, 60 percent of poll respondents supported the parcel tax.

The poll, conducted in June with 350 likely voters, showed more support for a more-modest tax.

A tax of $330 per parcel could eke out the two-thirds majority it needs to pass: 65 percent of poll respondents said they would vote yes, and another 3 percent said they were "leaning yes."

(Screenshot/LAUSD Memo)

District officials noted there's reason to believe these polls have a large margin for error. In June 2010, L.A. Unified floated a $100 parcel tax. Initial polls showed 63 percent of voters supported it. But come election time, support vanished: the parcel tax went down with only 52.9 percent of the vote.

WHY DO THE POLL NUMBERS MATTER?

Most L.A. Unified School Board members support the idea of asking voters to raise their own taxes to generate more revenue for the district.

But they've debated at length how and when to put that question to the voters. The district's polling numbers have been central to that debate.

At the school board's June 19 meeting, McKenna formally proposed moving forward with a parcel tax that would raise $150 million, but tabled the issue — partially because they hoped to see more polling.

The question now is whether the poll numbers show the glass as half-empty or half-full.

THE 'GLASS-HALF-EMPTY' ARGUMENT

Some board members say there's good reason to believe LAUSD is not ready to mount a winning campaign — at least not yet.

The board would need to race to approve ballot language before an August deadline to place the measure before voters this November. Since district resources cannot be used to sway voters, board members and the superintendent would need to lead an external "vote yes" effort; none of that campaign infrastructure is in place yet.

"We have one bite at the apple on this," board member Nick Melvoin said at the June 19 meeting. (Translation: if the district proposes a parcel tax and it fails, it will hurt the district's chances at asking voters again in the future.)

"I am concerned that there has to be a strategy to win," said board president Mónica García, "not just a strategy to put on the ballot."

If the 2010 election results are any indication, the district would need a strategy to sway leery voters on L.A.'s Westside and in the west San Fernando Valley — the two areas where turnout was highest in that year's primary election.

In the West Valley, 61 percent of voters opposed the district's proposed parcel tax; only 52 percent of Westside voters supported it.

Melvoin noted the district would have a better chance if state lawmakers succeed in lowering the threshold for passing a parcel tax from a two-thirds majority to 55 percent. Melvoin said state lawmakers appear unlikely to get that done this year, but that they might by the time 2020 elections come around.

THE 'GLASS-HALF-FULL' ARGUMENT

But other board members question why the poll numbers are being presented as evidence a parcel tax would fail. On June 19, board member Scott Schmerelson said he received briefings from district staffers optimistic about the chances of success.

"I don't know what changed in the last month, where the people who briefed me were very positive about [a parcel tax] passing," Schmerelson said. "All of a sudden, now, it's not going to pass."

Former L.A. Unified School Board member David Tokofsky — who has been outspoken in his criticism of current district leaders for failing to advance a revenue-generating measure — said the polling should be enough to prompt board members and other district leaders to move forward with the parcel tax.

"They sit there and see poll numbers like 60 and 63 and 68 percent as negative," said Tokofsky. "That is an outrageous thing to say that those numbers are insufficient. You have to make your argument."

He added: "If you run a campaign in July, August, September, October; say you need the revenue, you will get damn close."

This post was updated at 4:30 p.m. with more information about how much the parcel taxes would raise.