I would like to take a moment to thank the City Council for the vote of strong support for Measure O, and its previous support of Measure J. It is heartening to see that years of improving relationships between the City Council and the School District are resulting in more trust among our city leaders that the district is tackling difficult problems.
While canvassing the district this last month many members of the community asked questions about Measure O. I was able to provide answers to their questions, and thankfully most residents of District 4 appear supportive. What I also found, however, were some who don’t support the bond initiative.
Their argument can be paraphrased: “It’s not the right time, regrettably. It’s a sad fact that public schooling in California is underfunded, but now is the wrong time to rectify that problem, and this is the wrong way to solve it.”
This is, in a nutshell, the historical argument that has been levied against every attempt to improve funding for our local school district. It was the argument against Measure Y, it was the argument against Measure TT, it was the argument against Measure CC, often given by civic or community leaders, shaking their head sadly at a problem that has persisted for forty years, but never seems to be a problem we can address today.
And now it is the argument against Measure O.
When one drills down into the particulars, it’s not an argument that withstands much scrutiny. Let us unpack some of the claims behind this argument.
The first claim is that we are in a recession, and thus “now is the wrong time to seek to increase taxes”. While it’s certainly true that we are in a recession, this argument has an unstated premise that the tax increase will be levied instantly and impact everyone to the full extent today, while the recession is going on.
This is not accurate.
Measure TT, for example, authorized $350 million in bonds, but those bonds were issued in multiple sections, over the course of 20 years. Each issuance of bonds requires board approval, and the conversations around those bond issuances include board members weighing factors such as the current interest rate, the impact on the taxpayer, the current projects in the construction pipeline, and numerous other factors.
I also mention that “increasing taxes” is itself begging a question; increasing relative to what?
While it’s certainly true that authorizing a bond will increase taxes on local homeowners relative to the dollar amount they pay today, how reasonable of a burden is our school district on our local property tax base? Simply put, how is PUSD’s local tax support compared to other districts in Los Angeles County?
The answer to that is, “Pretty poorly”.
Currently our bond obligation tax rate is lower than 68 other public school districts in Los Angeles County, it is ahead of only ten, and at 55% of the median bond obligation.
Even with the passage of Measure O, we would be behind Paramount USD, Pamona USD, Lynwood USD, El Rancho USD, Wiseburn-Centinela USD, Lennox USD, Duarte USD, South Pasadena USD, Long Beach USD, Basset USD, Norwalk La Mirada USD, Covina Valley USD, Baldwin Park USD, Los Angeles USD, Beverly Hills USD, Garvey SD, Santa Monica-Malibu USD, Azusa USD, Compton USD, El Segundo USD, Hawthorne SD, El Monte Union High SD, and Rowlad Heights USD.
These are not uniformly wealthy communities, and yet they support their public school district more than the PUSD area community supports PUSD. Some of them even have parcel taxes in addition to their bond obligations.
Even aside from that question of parcel taxes, each one of those districts is currently carrying a bond related tax burden that is twice that of PUSD’s current local contribution, or more.
The median household income in Compton, CA is $43,230. The median household income in Pasadena, CA is $70,845. It appears to be hard to argue that a local tax increase that would still put us below Compton’s tax rate is hardly a significant tax increase, and not an irresponsible ask for the public to bear.
The second claim is that the district isn’t clear what projects will be included in the bond measure. But this is not entirely accurate. The slides from the November 21, 2019 Board Meeting show staff priorities clearly (linked below). The top four priorities are:
- Modernization and Reconfiguration of Current School Sites
- State Mandated and Deferred Maintenance Items
- Safety and Security
- Energy and Water Conservation
In addition, the district has a web page with the list of specific site needs detailed here, by school: https://www.pusd.us/Page/8883
I daresay that if you know anyone who is a parent at any of those schools they can provide you with an assessment of the accuracy of the list, and if anything they will have items to add, not remove.
The third claim is that the district will waste money on schools that it will then close. Critics point to our declining enrollment and ask, “why spend money on schools that you’re going to close?”
The response to that is threefold.
First, the history is arguably the opposite. Pasadena Unified School District has closed 10 schools since 2005: Noyes, Edison, Allendale, and Linda Vista in 2005, Burbank and Loma Alta in 2010, Cleveland in 2018, and Franklin, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Wilson in 2020. Measure TT spent 94% of its funding on school sites that are still in use by the district as schools, or on the Ed Center or District Service Center.
Only 6% of Measure TT funds was spent on schools that have then been closed. Furthermore, of those ten closed schools, three are still in use by the district for district-related services and three generate revenue from leases to either private organizations or charters, with Cleveland being used for both purposes. Only four schools have not yet been repurposed, sold, leased, or otherwise had their investment recouped: Wilson, Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Franklin. And all of those were closed only last year.
Second is the tricky widget that declining enrollment has been increased both by school closures and the lack of facility improvements: some members of the community leave the district when schools close, and others don’t opt-in to the district in the first place because private schools offer more compelling facilities.
Third, there is the matter that regardless of the declining number of students, the students that we have deserve safe, clean, well maintained facilities that are appropriate for their educational needs.
School buildings are like any other capital facility, they need safety updates, seismic retrofits, accessibility modifications, energy efficiency upgrades, kitchen replacements, the list goes on and on.
Pasadena is a rich community. We must stop treating our public schools as an inconvenient imposition on the taxpayer and instead as an integral part of the community that is worthy of our best efforts.
There is no reason why Pasadena Unified can’t be the highest funded school district in the state, let alone the country. Except political will.
Patrick Cahalan is the president, PUSD Board of Education