LA Unified: A gang that can’t shoot straight

The state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, is asking its voters to approve a special tax in a June 4 election.

That’s not unusual. Throughout California, school districts, cities, counties and other units of local government are loading up local ballots with tax proposals, either sales taxes or “parcel taxes,” a form of taxing property that avoids constitutional limits on conventional property taxes.

Despite the state’s high-flying economy, which is producing record amounts of tax revenue, local government and school officials are feeling the pinch of rapidly increasing pension costs and health care for current and retired workers.

They tend, however, to downplay, or even ignore, those reasons as they ask voters for more tax money, instead promising improvements in services. LA Unified says the proceeds of its parcel tax would reduce classroom overcrowding and improve student services, but it also would help pay the district’s escalating “contributions” to the California State Teachers Retirement System and the California Public Employees Retirement System.

Several factors set LA Unified’s proposal, Measure EE, apart from the others. One is that because the district is so large, its proposed parcel tax—16 cents a square foot on residential and commercial structures—has become a proxy test for a statewide measure, already qualified for the 2020 ballot, that would raise conventional property taxes on commercial real estate.

While unions and other liberal groups support Measure EE, business organizations have lined up against it—the same alignment of foes that’s beginning to assemble for the 2020 “split roll” measure.

Measure EE would require two-thirds voter approval to be enacted, and the solid, well-financed business opposition makes its passage very uncertain under the best of circumstances.

The most unusual aspect of Measure EE, however, is LA Unified’s incredibly incompetent, or duplicitous, presentation to voters.

The district’s board voted February 28 to place it on the ballot. But the measure’s wording drew criticism from the county assessor’s office because it appeared to limit taxes to “habitable” areas, meaning, it seemed, to residential properties.

In fact, however, the board meant to tax commercial property as well, so without announcing it, or taking another vote, district officials changed the measure to apply to “the square footage of all buildings or structures erected on or affixed to the land.”

Officials call it a “minor technical change.” But clearly it was much more than that, and led to another bit of confusion over whether commercial and residential parking garages also would be subject to the parcel tax.

That led the school board to, in effect, make another revision of the measure last week, exempting parking garages.

However, the post-February 28 changes prompted a lawsuit by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, alleging that they made the measure illegal.

“First by gross incompetence, and then by complete and total disregard of the California Elections Code and California’s open meeting law,” the district and county election officials “are presently conducting an unlawful election,” the lawsuit contends.

Those are strong words. But they are completely justified by the district’s actions, which call to mind the “Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a 1971-vintage satirical movie about bumbling crooks.

LA Unified’s self-inflicted wounds on Measure EE should not surprise anyone who has followed its recent history of revolving-door turnovers in superintendents, ever-changing political alignments of its school board, higher salaries and benefits that cannot be financed, mishandling of funds meant to educate poor kids and, most of all, chronically and abysmally poor academic performance.

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