L.A. School Tax Measure Suffers Resounding Defeat in Blow to Mayor Garcetti

After voters overwhelmingly rejected a property tax that would have raised $500 million annually for the financially struggling Los Angeles Unified School District, the superintendent, mayor and head of the teachers union vowed Wednesday to work together to get more state money for schools.

Riding a wave of public support after settling a six-day teachers strike in January, the union had joined leaders of the nation's second-largest school district to promote Measure EE.

It would have taxed commercial and residential properties 16 cents per square foot of indoor space for 12 years to help pay for the teachers' contract and other obligations.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, center, speaks on Jan, 22, 2019 after a contract agreement was reached between the L.A. teachers union and the school district. Behind him are union President Alex Caputo-Pearl, left, and L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner. (Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, center, speaks on Jan, 22, 2019 after a contract agreement was reached between the L.A. teachers union and the school district. Behind him are union President Alex Caputo-Pearl, left, and L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner. (Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The measure on Tuesday's low-interest special election ballot did not come close to garnering the necessary two-thirds majority.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who helped broker the settlement of the teachers strike, acknowledged the decision to call a special election was risky. He said it came from a sense of urgency over the dire, long-term financial picture of schools.

The district is projecting a half-billion-dollar deficit this budget year and has billions more obligated for pension payments and health coverage for retired teachers.

Student enrollment — which determines how much money the district gets from the state — has been declining as many parents choose to send their children to charter schools.

"It's time to take the fight to Sacramento," Superintendent Austin Beutner said at a news conference Wednesday with the mayor. "We'll ask the governor and Legislature for additional funding for our schools, and we'll continue to inform the communities we serve about the need for local funding for local schools."

Gov. Gavin Newsom's state budget proposal includes "historic investments in schools and support for districts like LAUSD," his office said in a statement Wednesday. The spending plan includes a $3 billion one-time payment to California's teacher pension fund. The governor has also said he wants to help districts that are seeing more of their budgets eaten up by pension obligations.

Beutner and United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl joined forces after the strike ended with a deal that included a 6 percent pay hike for educators and a commitment by the district to reduce class sizes.

Caputo-Pearl said Wednesday that the coalition would back a 2020 ballot initiative that would funnel money to schools by overhauling California's property tax system.

The California's Schools and Communities First ballot initiative, which has qualified for next year's election, would hike property taxes on California businesses and generate revenue for local and state governments that would filter to public education.

It would change a key provision of Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 initiative that capped property taxes, slashing state revenue and saddling school districts with shrinking budgets.

Supporters of the new initiative estimate that more than $11 billion per year would be restored for public schools, community colleges, health clinics and other vital services.

Opponents say increasing property taxes on business would drive jobs out of state and make it more expensive to live in California.

Matt Klink, a spokesman for the "No on EE" campaign, said his group would oppose the 2020 measure, too.

"It's a complete non-starter, especially in a state that currently has a budget surplus," Klink said Wednesday. "The business community has a long history of supporting public education. But we don't like being told what to do, especially in the form of taxes."

The district's budget must be submitted to the county by July 1. Beutner promised it would "get us through the next three years."

The Board of Education voted to place Measure EE on the ballot to provide more locally controlled funding, saying it would help reduce class sizes, as well as attract high-quality teachers and other employees, among other benefits.

Opponents included business and taxpayer organizations that argued the tax would average $537 per property and result in a variety of ills, including rent hikes as landlords passed costs along to tenants in a region already seeing a housing affordability crisis.

Opponents also argued that the measure had no guarantees that tax dollars would be put to use in classrooms. Supporters countered that it had strict taxpayer protections and accountability.

LA Unified has more than 600,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grades in the city of Los Angeles and all or parts of 31 other municipalities and several unincorporated areas.

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