EDUCATION Manhattan Beach Citizens’ school parcel tax makes June ballot

Members of the MB Citizens for Schools outside City Hall Monday, preparing to turn in over 4,000 signatures to place a parcel tax on the June ballot. From left to right, Hilary Mahan, Michael Sinclair and co-chairs Wysh Weinstein and Angie Smith. Photo by Kevin Cody

Madeline Kaplan and her group gathered more than 500 signatures for the MB Citizens for Schools initiative. Photo by Angie Smith

by Mark McDermott 

The MB Citizens for Schools initiative, a quickly assembled movement intended to provide locally-controlled funding for local schools, has gathered the signatures required to be placed on the ballot for the June 7 election.

The MB Citizens for Schools group gathered 4,087 signatures in nine days in order to meet the Monday deadline to qualify for the June ballot. The effort exceeded the state requirement, which is 10 percent of Manhattan Beach’s roughly 27,000 registered voters, or 2,700 signatures. 

The proposed ballot measure would impose a $1,095 annual parcel tax in order to add $2,000 in per-pupil funding for Manhattan Beach Unified School District students. 

Wysh Weinsten, the co-chair, along with Angie Smith, of MB Citizens for Schools, emphasized that the size of the tax would simply bring local students up to the national average in per-pupil funding. 

“We really want to make our residents understand the need, and that this only gets our students adequately funded,” Weinstein said. “This is not this crazy amount of cash, so that all of a sudden, you know, we’ve hit the jackpot. This is just to be adequately funded.” 

The citizens’ initiative movement only coalesced early this month as the MBUSD Board of Education considered both its budget and the possibility of extending, or increasing the $225 Measure MB parcel tax approved by voters in 2018. It expires in 2024. 

A budget workshop conducted by the board in January revealed a “fiscal cliff” that will occur the year after next as a result of a decline in the enrollment count used for state Average Daily Attendance funding, from the 6,350 students currently calculated for ADA to 5,659. The drop will be exacerbated by the state’s projected overall decline in education funding, the fact that the state does not meet its mandate for special education funding, and the fact that under current state funding formulas MBUSD is   among the lowest funded districts in the state. 

The final piece in the push for the parcel tax initiative was newly settled law that allows for a citizen-led initiative —  as opposed to a ballot measure proposed by the district itself —  to face a 50 percent plus one approval threshold, versus a supermajority requiring 66 percent voter approval. 

“There are so many failures with the California ballot system because who can get anything through at two-thirds,” said Karen Komatinsky, who served on the MBUSD school board for 10 years and is currently involved in the initiative movement. “It’s this gobbled-up, jam-packed ballot, that does nothing but make voters weary, and tired. The fact that this will be out there at a simple majority gives us the opportunity to move the needle.” 

Initiative proponents intend to lean heavily on a simple argument —  that approving this ballot measure will keep tax money, and control, in Manhattan Beach. 

“It’s about local control,” Komatinsky said. “It’s about keeping our tax dollars here locally, to determine as a community what we want to do with them,  versus releasing them to Sacramento’s coffers. If we can somehow keep our tax dollars here, and determine what our community needs versus being told what our community needs, that is what needs to be done.” 

The lack of local control has been on display for decades. Many years, the school board is forced to adopt a budget essentially blindfolded —  the district has increasing costs in nearly everything it does, but rarely has any certainty regarding what funding the state will provide. As a result, most years MBUSD issues pink slips to many employees, in the hopes that backfunding will allow those terminations to be rescinded. Over time, this has resulted in larger class sizes than is ideal. 

Weinstein, who taught in California schools six years, herself, and received pink slips half those years, said a parcel tax will bring one other essential quality to MBUSD in addition to local control 

“Stability for everyone,” she said. “Knowing there’s going to be manageable class size, so that we know how many teachers we’re going to need, and we know how many kids are going to be in the class. Knowing that we don’t have to stress, and worry about what programs we’re going to cut. I mean, most years, every February at the budget workshop, it’s, ‘Okay, this is what’s on the chopping block? And sometimes they get cut, sometimes they don’t. It’’s the same thing with the payslips. It’s demoralizing when every year your program is up for being cut. It makes it feel like you’re not valued, and those kids feel like, ‘This is my passion. This is what I love. Why are you considering cutting this program every single year?’  What message does that send to a child who is involved in that program?”

The size of the parcel tax, which would be placed on property tax bills, will be the biggest hurdle to overcome. As yet there is no organized opposition but the $1,095 price tag is likely to face criticism. 

Manhattan Beach native Jim Potts said many people who grew up locally can no longer afford to live here, and for those who rent the parcel tax would likely result in rent increases. He argued that the tax is regressive and unfair to those who don’t have kids in local schools. 

“In the end, no matter what any parent says, having children is an individual decision, and the responsibility to pay for it lies with them,”  Potts said. 

Former mayor and council person Russ Lessor said he does not oppose the parcel tax increase, but argued that the district also needs to address what he believes is a key reason behind the enrollment decline. 

“I’d like to see our emphasis on math, science, history and English, not on some of the other things they are teaching in not only our schools but in other schools,” Lessor said. “They deny they are teaching them, but the feedback you get from parents —  you know, so many kids have dropped out of our school district in the last year, and even the last three or four years. Parents are upset. My wife Charlotte and I have always supported the bond issues and the endowment fund and Ed Foundation. I’m not saying our schools don’t need the money. But I would like to see some discussion with parents about the curriculum concerns that parents have. That’s all.” 

Weinstein, who also serves as MBUSD PTA Council president and is deeply involved in the day-to-day workings of the district, acknowledged that curriculum concerns are increasingly present among parents. She said the district needed to address such concerns and  “unpack it, and say, ‘This is happening, this is not happening.’” 

But that issue, Weinstein said, should not be tied to adequately funding schools. She said the process of gathering signatures and talking to people about education was refreshing in that it actually brought people together, rather than increased politically derived divides. Hopefully, Weinstein said, the next few months will allow the community to have a larger conversation about education at MBUSD. 

“I just feel like I have like a restored faith in humanity,” Weinstein said. “Yes, that sounds really lame, and I know that I can come off as naive sometimes. But this last couple of weeks has given me a confidence that social media and what people post online is not how everyone is thinking. When you engage with people, and ask them questions, so much comes out of that, including maybe how we need to treat some of what’s happening in schools, or not happening at schools. It can only make it better to have these conversations, instead of everyone just yelling at each other online.” ER 


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