Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource
Third graders in P.E. at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

California voters were uncharacteristically stingy this week when they rejected more than half the local school bonds and tax measures that would have funded campus facility upgrades and operations throughout the state.

Of 111 school bonds on the ballot, more than half appeared headed for failure. Nineteen were passing and the rest were too close to call as of Thursday afternoon. Half of the 28 parcel taxes placed on the ballot by school districts were also failing. Eight were too close to call and six appeared to pass. 

By contrast, in 2016 nearly all the 150 or so school bonds and taxes passed in California.

“I was surprised,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, noting that the March 3 ballot — a highly contested Democratic primary — should have attracted more left-leaning voters, a bloc that tends to favor school spending. 

But voter turnout was low in many areas, and the recent stock market plunge and spread of coronavirus likely left voters jittery, he said.

“I’m not sure people are feeling as good about the economy and the future, overall, as they were a few weeks ago,” he said. “Generally, when people have trouble with the idea of (government) spending, it’s because they’ve gotten nervous about their own spending.”

Another factor could be voter priorities, he said. The Institute’s recent surveys show that California voters’ top concerns currently are homelessness and housing, with schools further down the list.

District leaders had varying views about why voters seemed more reluctant to tax themselves to help school districts pay salaries and operating costs this year. 

Some say residents are tax weary from the number of bond and special taxes on their ballots, while others say residents want the state to allocate more funding for education. School districts have turned to parcel taxes in recent years to raise money for school programs, class-size reduction and teacher salaries

In Santa Clara County, Campbell Union High School District lost its bid for a $298 parcel tax. Only 57.93 percent of district voters approved the parcel tax. Two-thirds was required.

Campbell Union School Board President Kalen Gallagher said he was told by people who have supported taxes for the district in the past that they want the state to offer a more permanent solution to the district’s funding problems. 

“It seems like this is the election where people said, ‘Let’s stop putting a Band-aid on it. Let’s solve it,’ ” said Gallagher, adding that it is important to raise wages, so teachers can afford to live in Silicon Valley. 

“We already have a problem attaining and attracting teachers, and it will get worse instead of better,” he said. “It is a core problem for all the districts in the Bay. We didn’t have any empty classrooms at the beginning of the year, but keeping people over a few years is really, really difficult.”

One solution could be to allow parcel taxes to be passed with the 55 percent required for bonds, Gallagher said. 

That would have helped Davis Joint Unified School District, near Sacramento, where a $198 parcel tax to increase salaries for teachers and preserve school programs is teetering toward approval with 65.06 percent of the vote — and about 10,000 ballots still to be counted.

That’s unusual for the school district, which has a long history of passing parcel taxes to keep class sizes down and to support classroom programs. Voters in the district approved the first parcel tax in 1984 for $45 a parcel. Other parcel taxes have been approved by voters since, including the current parcel tax, Measure H, a yearly tax of $620 per parcel passed in 2016. It raises $10 million a year for educational programs and services, according to the district.

“The Davis community has been wonderfully generous with the district in terms of supporting local parcel taxes,” said Cindy Pickett, school board president. “I think what’s different is the $150 million bond measure passed in the last election. Homeowners are seeing the increased taxes happening this year. There are quite a few families that are feeling tapped out .”

Pickett says salary increases are needed to retain and attract teachers because district pay is not competitive with neighboring districts.

“With a teacher shortage statewide, it puts us in a tough position,” Pickett said.

Berkeley Unified School District had better luck than most when it comes to raising taxes. The Bay Area school district managed to pass two parcel taxes and a bond measure Tuesday. The parcel taxes passed by 82 and 79 percent, well over the 2/3 required.

The district was able to renew a parcel tax for 9.1 cents per square foot to help maintain its facilities, as well as a parcel tax for 12.4 cents per square foot to increase employee salaries. 

“This community has been very supportive,” said Natasha Beery, director of community relations for the district. “The one in 2016 passed with nearly 89 percent of the votes — a really huge approval rating. I think the community gets behind our schools.”

Mendocino Unified was one of the big winners Tuesday, with a $31 million bond that passed with 66 percent of the vote — well over the 55 percent needed. That money will fund improvements at Mendocino High School, including new science labs, floors, a roof and electric, plumbing and heating upgrades at the 72-year-old school on the Northern California coast.

“I’m very pleased and thankful that our community values education so highly and wants to invest in our schools,” Superintendent Jason Morse said. “We feel very fortunate.”

The district ran a low-key campaign, he said, that focused mainly on providing information rather than trying to persuade voters. The district offered public tours of school facilities and garnered support from community leaders, which helped secure the win, Morse said. 

San Ysidro School District was the only school district in San Diego County to see its bonds pass, as of Thursday. A pair of bonds will raise more than $108 million for campus upgrades.

“We are ecstatic for our students,” said district spokesman Francisco Mata. “We all worked really hard to make this happen – parents, staff, the community. We feel very blessed and fortunate to have a community that believes in our schools to this extent.”

In San Leandro, district officials are holding off celebrating until the final votes are counted, but Measure N, a $198 million bond, appears headed for victory. A possible factor in the measure’s success may have been the way the district spent funds from a 2016 bond, completing all its promised projects on time and under budget, said district spokeswoman Keziah Moss.

“We are cautiously optimistic that our school facilities improvement bond will pass in the next few days,” she said. “If that turns out to be the case, our success is due to the especially strong commitment of our community to continue to improve our schools for our students.”

Morgan Hill Unified had one of the largest bonds on the ballot: $900 million to fund upgrades at all 14 schools in the district south of San Jose. The measure only garnered 38 percent of the vote, and needed 55 percent to pass.

Voter unease about the economy, and the size of the bond, are likely what led to its failure, said Lanae Bays, district spokeswoman. The alternative was to put forth several smaller bonds over the next few years, but that seemed like a gamble, too, she said. 

Regardless, the repairs and upgrades still need to get done, and the district will likely return to voters in the next year or two with another bond.

“We’ll regroup and try again,” she said. “They haven’t heard the last of us.”

Morgan Polikoff, associate professor at University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, agreed that the political and economic tumult of the past few weeks had a negative effect on the bond and tax measures.

“The timing was bad. People are panicked about the virus; the stock market is falling,” he said. “Generally, there’s a lot of uncertainty about where the country’s going.” 

In the recent PACE/USC Rossier annual poll, the economy and taxes were voters’ top concerns. And voters were generally pessimistic about the overall state of California’s public schools, suggesting they’re less likely to reward school districts with more money.

“There’s a concern about what they’re getting for their money,” he said.

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  1. Pranab 8 months ago8 months ago

    Where to begin, as a parent of 2 school children living in Bay Area, where you have mortgaged every last dime you earn. I do prioritize what my kids need vs what they want. So when it comes to the school district asking for funds, the same logic applies: How are you spending my tax dollar? Every other day I hear how teachers are frustrating kids and demotivating them. Saying anything publicly means pressure on … Read More

    Where to begin, as a parent of 2 school children living in Bay Area, where you have mortgaged every last dime you earn. I do prioritize what my kids need vs what they want. So when it comes to the school district asking for funds, the same logic applies: How are you spending my tax dollar?

    Every other day I hear how teachers are frustrating kids and demotivating them. Saying anything publicly means pressure on the kids from the administration, school etc. You get the picture. As a parent I feel speechless. Teachers who can’t teach, can’t help a student after a test where they went wrong, behaving condescendingly so the students don’t even ask for help. And this is from a high school student who spends more than 12 hours everyday working for academic achievement.

    This is not a general observation of all teachers. There are some very good teachers who get a bad rap being in such company of non-performers already in the workforce. Teachers while encouraging group activity in a classroom fail to see that by putting a hard-working kid among other non-performers does not lift the morale of the non-performers, but brings down the morale of the one working hard, others freeloading on the efforts of one individual. It does not help to be politically correct all the time. Teachers have the unique ability and responsibility to shape minds. Telling good kids that no matter how hard you work, your team will pull you down is not a good sign and as a parent our decisions are based on fairness.

  2. Dan Plonsey 8 months ago8 months ago

    Funding California education through local parcel taxes is doing just what it was intended to do: maintaining funding in affluent and well-educated communities, while trashing schools everywhere else. I'm a Berkeley teacher, but I was opposed to Berkeley's parcel tax (not that I can afford to live in Berkeley to vote on it!). Berkeley, by raising its taxes, accelerates gentrification, and pushes out the poorest homeowners, while raising the value of already obscenely priced housing. … Read More

    Funding California education through local parcel taxes is doing just what it was intended to do: maintaining funding in affluent and well-educated communities, while trashing schools everywhere else. I’m a Berkeley teacher, but I was opposed to Berkeley’s parcel tax (not that I can afford to live in Berkeley to vote on it!).

    Berkeley, by raising its taxes, accelerates gentrification, and pushes out the poorest homeowners, while raising the value of already obscenely priced housing. The rich get richer. Meanwhile, as the comments here reveal, people who are inclined to support education are led to believe by the appearance of multiple taxes and bonds each year, that the problem is that schools waste money.

    No. The problem is that the Democrats who run the state favor increasing inequality. The actual cause of the apparent waste is that when the billionaires ran away with our money in the crash of 2009, they left pension funds depleted, so therefore much of the money homeowners are asked to pay effectively is going to make up what those billionaires stole. I wouldn’t vote for those parcel taxes either! Instead, we need to deal with the problem of growing inequality, on a statewide level. To call parcel taxes a band-aid is a serious mistake: they are what is keeping the issue of inequality from being addressed!

  3. Martin Forte 8 months ago8 months ago

    The reason I do not support educational bonds is simple: 1. California rates in the top three states in funding per student. The result of this is that we are in the bottom 3 states in the quality of education as represented in standardized test scores. 2. The curriculum sucks, why should I want to spend more money on common core and whacky issues like gender identification, political indoctrination, the anti-free market theology, extreme … Read More

    The reason I do not support educational bonds is simple:

    1. California rates in the top three states in funding per student. The result of this is that we are in the bottom 3 states in the quality of education as represented in standardized test scores.

    2. The curriculum sucks, why should I want to spend more money on common core and whacky issues like gender identification, political indoctrination, the anti-free market theology, extreme leftist propaganda and the fact that most students do not have a good perspective of our history because of gender and race issues.

    3. The schools are becoming more and more controlling of the role of the parents.

    4. They are administratively heavy with less and less money going into the classroom.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 8 months ago8 months ago

      Martin,
      Thanks for your opinions. But regarding #1, where do you get that figure per student? California has increased funding per student during the past eight years, but still, it ranks in the bottom half to bottom third, depending whether the ranking measures regional costs of living. Here’s one ranking that is reliable.

  4. Richard Michael 909-378-5401 8 months ago8 months ago

    Perhaps voters have finally wised up to the fact that every single one of the school measures on the ballot, for decades, have been sales pitches designed to get a yes vote. The districts have been cheating and continued to cheat even after the Legislature passed a second law in 2017 (AB-195) to stop the cheating. Misusing public moneys (taxpayer funds paid to conduct elections) is also a felony, Penal Code 424(a), whether or not … Read More

    Perhaps voters have finally wised up to the fact that every single one of the school measures on the ballot, for decades, have been sales pitches designed to get a yes vote. The districts have been cheating and continued to cheat even after the Legislature passed a second law in 2017 (AB-195) to stop the cheating. Misusing public moneys (taxpayer funds paid to conduct elections) is also a felony, Penal Code 424(a), whether or not they win the election.

    AB-195 makes it possible to file an election contest against any winning election and, by law, Rideout v. City of Los Angeles, the election is vitiated (cancelled).

    As of Saturday (March 7th), here is the break-down for K-12 tax measures.

    Prop 39 (55%) bonds: 31 of 111 passing (27.9% — not even close to half)
    Prop 46 (2/3) bonds: 1 of 2 passing (50%)
    parcel taxes (2/3): 11 of 27 passing (40.7%)

    Every single one of those 43 districts cheated on the ballot with an unlawful sales pitch. For every single one there are grounds to set aside the election in an election contest by a registered voter of the district.

    Just a single favorable appellate court decision setting aside an election or a single felony prosecution would reverberate around the state.

    The brought-and-paid-for “education media” will never cover this. There are election contests filed for 2018 and 2019 elections up and down the state, including San Diego Unified’s 2018 $7.5 billion tax measure.

    Including the 43 K-12 measures, there are 82 potential election contests against local tax measures for the March election. As with most laws, timing is critical. As soon as the election results for a county are certified, the clock starts ticking.

    Forcing registrars or local governing bodies to simply comply with existing law would likely cut placing new tax measures on the ballot by more than half. With an honest ballot, voters won’t pass the measures. They know it, so they cheat.

  5. Jim R 8 months ago8 months ago

    Maybe $4 per gallon gasoline had something to do with the sentiment? In New Mexico and Utah, prices are about $2, and neither state produces gasoline. Maybe it is sky-high water prices? What about electricity, which promises to go even higher as one of the largest utilities in the world tries to recover from bankruptcy and remain Green? Maybe it is the fact of a massive state budget surplus while the Governor keeps begging for … Read More

    Maybe $4 per gallon gasoline had something to do with the sentiment? In New Mexico and Utah, prices are about $2, and neither state produces gasoline.

    Maybe it is sky-high water prices? What about electricity, which promises to go even higher as one of the largest utilities in the world tries to recover from bankruptcy and remain Green?

    Maybe it is the fact of a massive state budget surplus while the Governor keeps begging for Federal aid?

    Maybe it is off-budget cleverness that keeps state revenue away from the General Fund and feeds agencies such as CARB that are up to no good.

    And maybe it Sanders supporters around the colleges and universities that don’t behave like traditional Democrats.

    And maybe it is because there are vast suburban areas of California with a declining student population, where people are financially trapped in their homes long into retirement.

    Or maybe it is simply a little of all of it. November won’t be different. The gas tax goes up again on July 1.

  6. Dawn Ricker 8 months ago8 months ago

    “Stingy”, how about waking up to the fact that the public school system is extremely wasteful and misdirected in the way funds are spent. Top heavy admin costs, invasive data collection, horrific curriculum, and legislative restrictions on parental rights – to name a few. Until parental choice and empowerment (tax dollars follow), public schools should not receive additional funding. Most teachers are great. Legislative and admin paperwork and data collection is bogging districts by boating the budget.

  7. Susan Pricco 8 months ago8 months ago

    Did you consider that many California communities are drowning with tax debt? Schools already get about half of our base property taxes, then bonds and additional parcel taxes ratchet it up, especially bonds that that 30+ years to pay off and , like a mortgage, interest can skyrocket the final tally. Did you consider unkept promises of various Districts? Did you consider the reduced competition of construction bids from PLA's? California used … Read More

    Did you consider that many California communities are drowning with tax debt? Schools already get about half of our base property taxes, then bonds and additional parcel taxes ratchet it up, especially bonds that that 30+ years to pay off and , like a mortgage, interest can skyrocket the final tally. Did you consider unkept promises of various Districts? Did you consider the reduced competition of construction bids from PLA’s? California used to offer high quality of education at far less financial cost – now the reverse is true. We must stop funding failure.

  8. John Alvarez 8 months ago8 months ago

    Perhaps Prop 13 failed on the ballot due to the inclusion of the UC system in the bond language as one of the beneficiaries of the bond funds. Families are tired of the price gouging costs and tuition increases of the UC system and believe that their dollars should not be directed to fund this system. On the other hand, I believe that the public would be in support of a TK-14 bond, … Read More

    Perhaps Prop 13 failed on the ballot due to the inclusion of the UC system in the bond language as one of the beneficiaries of the bond funds. Families are tired of the price gouging costs and tuition increases of the UC system and believe that their dollars should not be directed to fund this system. On the other hand, I believe that the public would be in support of a TK-14 bond, as community colleges seem to be a good educational investment and are regarded in a more positive light.

  9. NFL 8 months ago8 months ago

    It could also, in part, be that the people who own the homes, and are therefore responsible for paying the taxes, don’t have children who go to the schools that will benefit. In my particular district, the voters who passed the 2 bond measures are primarily renters whose children do attend the local schools. I am one of the few property owners who actually lives in the house I own; most homes in my area are rental properties.

  10. Ben 8 months ago8 months ago

    This article overlooks the most obvious reason — the drag caused by the bloated Prop. 13 (2020). When the State is asking for $15 billion, it’s hard to understand why local districts would need any more. Add in the misinformation campaign to tie Prop. 13 (2020) to Prop. 13 (1978), and a general lack of understanding about how California funds school facilities projects, and you get “no” votes all down the line. Prop. 13 (2020) … Read More

    This article overlooks the most obvious reason — the drag caused by the bloated Prop. 13 (2020). When the State is asking for $15 billion, it’s hard to understand why local districts would need any more. Add in the misinformation campaign to tie Prop. 13 (2020) to Prop. 13 (1978), and a general lack of understanding about how California funds school facilities projects, and you get “no” votes all down the line.

    Prop. 13 (2020) never should have been placed on the ballot, once it was clear what number it would have. This result was entirely predictable. And only our kids are paying the price. Time for the State to step up and offer a permanent solution for direct, annual funding for school facilities (as the Legislative Analyst has been recommending for a decade).

  11. Ben 8 months ago8 months ago

    This article overlooks the most obvious reason: the drag caused by the bloated Prop. 13 (2020). When the state is asking for $15 billion, it's hard to understand why local districts would need more. Add in the misinformation campaign to tie Prop. 13 (2020) to Prop. 13 (1978), and a general lack of understanding about how California funds school facilities projects, and you get "no" votes all down the line. It's amateur hour in the … Read More

    This article overlooks the most obvious reason: the drag caused by the bloated Prop. 13 (2020). When the state is asking for $15 billion, it’s hard to understand why local districts would need more. Add in the misinformation campaign to tie Prop. 13 (2020) to Prop. 13 (1978), and a general lack of understanding about how California funds school facilities projects, and you get “no” votes all down the line. It’s amateur hour in the Governor’s office, and our kids are paying the price.

    Time for the state to step up and offer a permanent solution for direct, annual funding for school facilities (as the Legislative Analyst has been recommending for a decade).