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Taxpayers Association urges 'No' on Prop J

San Diego property owners are already paying plenty in property taxes to fund education in the San Diego Unified School District. But district leaders still insist that they are desperately short of the funding they need to provide a quality education for our children. This would be alarming news -- if it were true.

So where is all of your tax money going? Let's look to educators themselves to provide the answer. The largest public labor union in America, the National Education Association reports on its own website (unionfacts.com) that California spends $8,586 per student annually.

Just this past year, when given the opportunity to implement significant reform in the face of mounting budget deficits, the district chose to offer significant salary increases for all of its employees without a plan to pay for them. In one fiscal year, many employees could see as high as a 14 percent increase over the previous year. Instead of putting the students first and positioning the District to be in a more financially stable position, the school board chose to shorten the school year by five days. The prudent decision would have been for the district to freeze future salary increases and reduce or eliminate bonuses, which are not merit-based.

Furthermore, when given the opportunity to apply for federal Race to the Top funds, the district chose not to -- forfeiting the chance to mitigate its loss in state funding.

We hear dire stories about parents having to spend hours on fundraising and paying for supplemental programs. We hear about teachers spending hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for school supplies just to get through the school year.

Proponents say that the money raised from a new parcel tax would help make up these alarming funding shortfalls.

Assurances that the money will "only" be spent on certain programs are extremely misleading. There's nothing preventing the school district from playing a budget shell game by replacing current program dollars with new restricted Prop J parcel tax dollars. The school district could cut their original budget allocations and siphon off money to pay for salary and benefit increases, which are already set to go up at least $25 million starting in July 2012.

The San Diego Unified School District has a poor track record of fiscal accountability and governance leadership. Long before coming to the voters, the district's leadership needs to first address structural budget problems and seek reasonable concessions through labor negotiations. If it did so, it wouldn't need to hit taxpayers with yet another bill.

If the school board can't manage the money they have now, how can we trust them to use new tax revenue cost-effectively and efficiently?

What is especially onerous about parcel taxes, which charge a flat rate to all property owners, is that the people who can afford it least will be hurt the most. Whether you are a homeowner with a multi-million dollar property in La Jolla, or a first-time buyer with a modest condominium in Clairemont, you will pay the same parcel tax under this measure. Commercial property owners will get charged over four times as much as homeowners, including small businesspeople struggling to stay afloat in a difficult recession.

This tax even gets charged on vacant properties.

Homeowners already pay plenty in property taxes to fund our schools. When we can't afford to pay our household bills, we cut back spending. When our school district can't afford to pay its bills, it asks for more of your tax dollars while pre-approving salary increases.

Proposition J offers no guarantees money will result in improved student achievement. Voters, especially those who are concerned parents, need to hold the District accountable for its bad decisions and demand structural reforms before agreeing to provide additional funding.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association strongly recommends a "No" vote on Proposition J.

Lutar is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. She can be contacted at lani.lutar@sddt.com

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