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Peter Dreier

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In Pasadena, a Vote of Confidence for Public Schools

Posted: 05/13/2010 5:32 pm

Tony Gordo, Ruth Strick, Cushon Bell, and George Brumder spent much of the last two months making phone calls several nights a week from a make-shift office on the second floor of the First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, California.

Gordo was calling Spanish-speaking voters, urging them to vote "yes" on Measure CC, a $120 parcel tax for the Pasadena Unified School District. The 50-year old Gordo has worked for PUSD for 16 years, first as a teacher's aide and for the past 10 years as a painter with the district's maintenance division. He has two children at PUSD's John Muir High School and another at Pasadena Community College. His union, Teamsters Local 911, initially recruited Gordo to the CC phone bank, but he soon began showing up at the church on his own on a regular basis.

Strick, 78, is a career counselor and silversmith who has been active in Pasadena's arts community. She learned about the CC campaign from a local arts group and became one of its most effective volunteer phone-bankers. The 38-year old Bell is a teacher in the Los Angeles schools who has two children in Pasadena's public schools. She is a leader with Invest in PUSD Kids, a grassroots community group, which helped organize the CC campaign's volunteers. Brumder, 72, is a retired corporate lawyer and a well-connected and energetic philanthropist whose grown children attended private schools. He serves as president of the Pasadena Educational Foundation, which raises funds for the public schools, and chaired the CC campaign committee.

These four were among the more than 700 volunteers mobilized by the Measure CC campaign. They made phone calls, walked precincts, held house meetings, and spoke to neighborhood meetings, religious congregations, and school organizations. The volunteers included parents of students in PUSD as well as private schools, residents without school-age children, teachers, seniors, businesspersons, clergy, and many others from all neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and income classes. Many volunteers had not previously been involved in any election campaign, including many young people.

In addition, the campaign had a full-time organizer - Darla Dyson, 42, a parent of three PUSD students - and several part-time organizers, who were trained in grassroots mobilization by Jared Rivera, a veteran organizer with the PICO network of community organizations.

When the ballots were counted on May 4, Measure CC received 54% of the vote. That's a higher proportion of votes than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama garnered in their successful presidential victories. But, officially, CC lost, because under state law parcel taxes need a two-thirds vote to pass.

Without the $7 million each year that CC would have raised, PUSD, with about 20,000 students, now has to make drastic cuts. All school libraries, summer school, advanced placement classes, are now on the chopping block. Class sizes will increase. Music, theater, and art programs will take a hit. This week, PUSD sent lay-off notices to 207 teachers, librarians, nurses, counselors, psychologists, administrators, clerical and maintenance workers.

The School Funding Crisis

Pasadena is not alone. More than 26,000 California teachers have already received pink slips for next fall. Nationwide, as many as 300,000 teachers could lose their jobs in the upcoming school year.

Every occupant of the White House promises to fix the nation's fragmented education system, with over 13,000 local school districts. George W. Bush introduced his No Child Left Behind program that increased the number of standardized tests students have to take each year. Obama's stimulus package allowed local districts to save about half a million teachers' jobs this year, but that funding has not been renewed. Obama has recently unveiled several new proposals to link federal funds to teacher and school performance standards.

In fact, however, the federal government only contributes about 9% of the nation's public school funding. States provide slightly little less than half of all K-12 funding, while local governments generally contribute about 44% of total. America's public schools are chronically under-funded, but the recession has deepened the crisis, and widened the gap in funding between wealthy and other school districts. To keep their schools afloat, communities resort to private fundraising and supplemental taxes, which gets harder to do when families are facing economic hard times.

Like their counterparts everywhere, Pasadena's parents have been frustrated trying to raise money for their kids' schools by holding bake sales, selling t-shirts, and running casino nights and silent auctions. The 33-cents-a-day Measure CC parcel tax, which would have been in place for five years, offered an alternative. It would have filled only one-third of PUSD's $23 million budget gap, but it would have helped the district avoid the most painful cuts.

So campaign volunteers are understandably disappointed and angry by CC's defeat. From the beginning, they faced an uphill battle to win the two-thirds margin. But in many respects, this was a vote of confidence in PUSD's public schools. In this economic recession, a significant majority of voters in Altadena, Pasadena, and Sierra Madre said "yes" to a $120/year parcel tax to support public schools.

Moreover, the turnout was extraordinarily high, reflecting the hard work of the CC campaign volunteers as well as the growing recognition of PUSD's recent progress. More than 30,000 people - about one-quarter of all eligible voters - cast ballots. This is an extraordinarily high turnout for a local measure, especially with no other election or issue on the ballot. (The School Board elections in March 2009, for example, attracted only 11,442 voters, about 10 percent of all those eligible).

In waging the campaign, the CC activists rallied a broad and diverse constituency behind the public schools. Although the campaign is over, the movement has just begun. The defeat has triggered a new energy to challenge the chronic under-funding of public education.

The harsh reality is that, like every school district in California, Pasadena schools are still suffering from the shock waves produced by Proposition 13, the statewide initiative passed in 1978 that put a ceiling on local property taxes. Since then, school districts have been almost totally dependent on the state for school funding. Once among the best public education systems in the nation -- from kindergarten through college -- California has now sunk to one of the worst.

California is the 7th wealthiest state in the country (in per-capita income), but it ranks 46th in per student spending, according to Education Week -- $8,164 compared with the national average of $10,557. It ranks 42th in the number of students per teacher, resulting in large average class sizes. California has 20.9 students per teacher, compared to a national average of 15.5. It is at the very bottom in the ratio of counselors, school nurses, and librarians to students. California has 5,660 students for each librarian compared to 901 students per librarian nationally. Despite this, the state has already cut $17 billion from public education in the past two years and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed slashing another $2.4 billion this year.

A parcel tax is one way for local communities raise additional revenues for their schools. But the anti-government zealots who sponsored Proposition 13 wanted to put as many obstacles in their way as possible. Thus, they imposed the two-thirds threshold for enacting local parcel taxes.

Between 2001 and June 2009, out of 980 California school districts, 132 conducted parcel tax elections and 83 districts passed them. Only seven of those districts were in Southern California; 66 were within the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. Small districts were most successful; 66 (80%) of the districts that have passed parcel taxes serve fewer than 10,000 students. Moreover, parcel taxes often fail the first time they come before voters. Once school advocates are able to win a parcel tax victory, however, voters are likely to renew it at the ballot box in subsequent years.

Not surprisingly, affluent communities are most likely to pass parcel taxes, and do so at a higher level than less well-off districts. Last year, for example, voters in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of San Marino - where the median household income is $154,263 and only 1.3% of students are eligible for free-and-reduce meals, a proxy for low-income -- approved an addition to their existing parcel tax, bringing the total to $1,090 per parcel. But even with that new revenue, San Marino's schools face a $5 million out of its $29.5 million budget. To help fill the gap, the San Marino Schools Foundation will be asking every family in the district to make a voluntary $2,000 contribution per student. The other communities near Pasadena that have recently passed school parcel taxes are also among the wealthiest, including La Canada Flintridge (with only 1% low income students) and South Pasadena (8.6%).

On May 4, six California school districts - all in the northern part of the state - passed local parcel taxes. Each of them -- Acalanes (in Contra Costa County), Palo Alto, Fremont, and Union (Santa Clara County), and Menlo Park and Portola (San Mateo County) -- are all well-off communities that were voting to extend existing parcel taxes. These districts have few low-income students; only between 1.1% and 13.5% of their schools' population are eligible for free and reduced meals.

Larger urban school districts don't fare as well when they ask voters to tax themselves to fund public schools. Last year, for example, voters in Long Beach - where 68% of students come from low-income families - rejected a parcel tax, with only 43% voting "yes." On the same day, voters in Oxnard (with 79% low income students) rebuffed a parcel tax with 47% of the vote. Among the largest school districts, only Oakland, San Francisco, and West Contra Costa have passed parcel taxes.

When affluent communities pass local parcel taxes, while economically hard-hit communities fail to reach the two-thirds threshold, the funding gap between rich and poor school districts widens even further. This gap is compounded when parents in wealthy districts supplement public funds with private contributions that families in less well-off districts can't afford.