Proper planning for ballot initiatives like this takes months and years, not weeks…Nor has the district done at this time the preparation necessary to run a successful campaign so the taxpayers would support it…I believe a better option is to properly plan to do this by 2020 when we can be successful.”– Austin Beutner, July 10, 2018
Last July, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board Members Scott Schmerlson and George McKenna proposed adding a parcel tax to the November 2018 ballot. After initially indicating that he would support the measure, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner came out against the parcel tax at the July 10, 2018, board meeting. Beutner admitted that the tax was needed, but said that the timeline of four and a half months was too short in order to get the measure passed by the voters. He also pointed out that the $5 million price tag for holding the election would put a strain on the budget. His suggestion for the district to wait until the 2020 election cycle was backed by the votes of Board Members Monica Garica, Nick Melvoin and Ref Rodriguez, sending the proposal to its defeat. The parcel tax was dead.
Or so we thought.
Suddenly, last February the parcel tax returned. With just a couple of days notice it returned to the board’s agenda as a proposal for the June 2019 ballot. As described by Melvoin, this iteration was “rushed” and, therefore, gave the LAUSD even less time to formulate a path to victory. Also, since it would go before the voters in a special election and in many areas would be the only item on the ballot, the cost of the proposal increased significantly. By the estimates of the opponents to the parcel tax, $12.5 million would be spent to conduct the election. Despite the fact that this proposal exacerbated the problems that had caused them to vote against the resolution in July, Garcia and Melvoin changed their vote and the measure passed. Rodriguez couldn’t vote for the new proposal as he had pleaded guilty to felony charges related to his campaign and had to resign from the board. As a result, the residents of Board District 5 had no voice in the process.
The results were disastrous. Despite a full court press by the district, the unions, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and supposedly Superintendent Beutner, Measure EE could not achieve a simple majority, never mind the supermajority that it needed to pass. Not only will the LAUSD not get a badly needed source of funding, but the cost of the election also will mean that even less money is available for the students. What went wrong?
While the first rule of real estate is “location, location, location”, winning elections is all about timing. Not only was a special election more costly to conduct, it severely limited the number of voters who participated. These types of elections are notorious for having low turnout with only those who are most motivated by the issue involved. This greatly magnified the voice of those who will vote against all proposed taxes, no matter how well constructed the plan is or how much society will benefit from it. The Proposition 13 crowd is still strong in California, especially when there is a low voter turnout.
This problem was made worse by the broad mistrust that the LAUSD has earned with the voters. The iPad debacle, the MiSiS crisis, mismanaged legal cases, underregulated charter schools, and an unnecessary strike are all examples of how the district has mismanaged the limited funding that it receives. To compound the problem Garcia and Melvoin have used their leadership positions to eliminate public input into important decisions. They faced an investigation for selecting Superintendent Beutner behind closed doors and then lying to the public about their actions. Melvoin’s secret committee has written new board rules that would increase the power of the unelected superintendent and reduced the time allotted for public speakers. The resolution that resulted in Measure EE was not only written without public input, certain board members were also excluded from the process.
If the public had been invited into the process, voter concerns could have been addressed before the measure was placed on the ballot. A homestead exception for the first 1,000 square feet of the improved property on a lot would have reduced the burden on low-income families. A specific method of public oversight would have eased concerns about the money not being wisely spent. The decision to guarantee charter schools a portion of the funds without strict controls could have alleviated concerns that this money was being sent to privately run schools. Instead, Beutner decided that he knew what was best and tried to force his will on the people. The people said “no.”
The most prominent concern when Beutner was hired was that he had no professional experience in the field of education. We were told that he would compensate for this with his business experience. However, his failure to prevent the opposition from the corporate world to his $12.5 million gamble calls these qualifications into question. Measure EE’s rejection by the voters, along with his failed strategy in dealing with the teachers’ strike proves his lack of political acumen. What exactly does Buetner bring to the table?