EDUCATION Measure A’s premise and outcome debated

Steve Izant, center, moderates a forum on Measure at Shade Hotel. Opponents, from the far left, were represented by Greg Dickinson, Joe Franklin, and Tiffany Wright. Proponents were represented by Wysh Weinstein, Hilary Mahan, and Michael Sinclair. Photo by Kevin Cody

An estimated 150 residents attended the Measure A Parcel Tax debate on Monday, May 16, sponsored by Easy Reader. Photo by Kevin Codyby Mark McDermott 

The amount, length, and need for the parcel tax proposed on the Measure A initiative on the June 7 ballot were areas of contention among proponents and opponents at a forum hosted by Easy Reader at Shade Hotel Monday night. 

The event was moderated by Hermosa Beach Planning Commissioner Steve Izant, and the proponents were represented by Measure A author Michael Sinclair, Manhattan Beach Education Foundation executive director Hilary Mahan, and PTA district advisory council president Wysh Weinstein. All three are members of MB Citizens for Schools, the group that gathered 4,100 signatures earlier this year to qualify the initiative for the ballot. 

No formal opposition group has been organized, but Councilperson Joe Franklin has emerged as a leader of residents against Measure A. He was joined Monday night by Tiffany Wright, an MBUSD parent who was the leader of the Kids Need Classrooms movement during the height of the pandemic, and Greg Dickinson, a newly involved MBUSD parent. 

The opponents went first. Dickinson, as he would do much of the night, focused his opening statement on three aspects of Measure A. He contested the premise of the ballot initiative, which is that MBUSD students are among the lowest funded in the state on a per-pupil basis. He also argued that declining enrollment trends made Measure A’s price tag unnecessarily high. 

“We’re not one of the lowest-funded in the South Bay, and we’re not one of the lowest funded in LA County,” Dickinson said. “I think it’s important to know that… As it stands, you know, we are considerably more, like 12 percent, above Palos Verdes, and 24 [percent] if we pass this parcel tax.  For Redondo, we’re already 24 [percent above And we’d be about 40 percent more on a per-pupil basis [should Measure A pass].”

Sinclair began with fireworks. He walked to the moderator’s podium holding flyers that had been sent out last week attacking both Measure A, and MBUSD leadership. One of the flyers, authored by the largely anonymous We the Parents MB group, centered on allegations that Critical Race Theory is being taught in MBUSD schools, and Measure A would provide millions “to fund an ideologically-driven plan to indoctrinate our kids.” 

Sinclair said the flyer had been handed to his 11-year-old son at their home. 

“Measure A provides critical funding for our public school education in our community, for our children, for our local classrooms,” Sinclair said.  “Measure A is not political, but it has been politicized by some in our community, who have attached it to a larger national political agenda, and by some in our community who have willfully chosen to spread fear and hate and ignorance in our town.” 

Two of the other flyers were anonymous and largely focused on alleged district overspending and Measure A critiques, while a fourth, which was not anonymous and included signatories from the ballot’s opposition argument as well as Councilperson Franklin, focused directly on Measure A. 

Though Franklin has disavowed association with the anonymous groups, Sinclair accused him of being “a mouthpiece” for them. 

“You are a puppet today more than ever,” Sinclair said. “What we have built in this community requires our attention and our protection. We are the stewards of our schools, and we are the bearers of a promise that we will protect them for the future, and that we will leave them better than we found them…And that’s why we have directed all of our energy into what matters the most, to protect our two greatest investments, our children and our community. They are in need. Our children are watching. They’re listening. And they see and they hear the fear and the hate that’s being pushed out into our community.” 

After opening remarks, the two sides addressed the issue of school funding. Measure A proponents have argued that MBUSD students receive $2,000 less annually, on a per pupil basis, than the state average, and that Dickinson has cherry-picked numbers to buttress his argument, which include one-time pandemic funding, and locally-raised funds insufficient to meet MBUSD’s ongoing needs. Mahan, who has spent a decade with MBEF, said her organization was meant to provide funds for enrichment programs, not to stave off teacher layoffs. 

“It is exactly because of the donations to MBEF, the donations to our PTA and the small parcel tax that we already have in our community that we are able to sustain any of the programs that we have,” Mahan said. “But time and time again, this continues to create a cycle in which we go through layoffs and pink slips. We go through demolishing programs that have no stability, and no traction enabled to be able to grow. We are consistently dealing with problems. What we need to do is create a sustainable source that will take us long term and be able to grow and support student needs at the levels in which we know they deserve…The solution is Measure A.” 

Dickinson acknowledged that MBUSD has a funding problem, but argued that a $12 million annual tax goes far beyond what that problem is. 

“We’ve come with $2 million to $3 million deficits for a couple of years. That’s a problem, right? Especially when we implemented a new parcel tax —  we’re four years into a six year tax that gave us $2.5 million and we’re still two to three million short…part of the question, then, is, if you’re two to three million short, why do we need $12 million dollars a year? And that’s a fair question…I think it’s fair to ask, how do you know when enough is enough?”

The next question was whether the $1,095 per year cost of the parcel tax was appropriately calculated. 

Dickinson said he understood the basis of the number was to bring students to the state average, but suggested a better way to calculate would be to look at needs specific to this school district. 

“It’s hard to know what appropriate means,” he said. “I do think you have to wonder, should we spend 40 percent more per student than Redondo? We are saying, maybe…But is 40, or is 50 percent better? I don’t know where that line is. But I’d like to start from knowing what we’re planning to do and  how much money we need for that, rather than saying, here’s how much money it is relative to a bunch of districts that don’t compare to us, in my opinion.”

Weinstein said that $1,095 was not an arbitrary number. 

“When you take the number of total parcels in Manhattan Beach and subtract the likely number of exemptions…and then you account for the $2,000 deficit to get to the state average,” she said.  “And you take into account our current enrollment and our current numbers to get up to the [state] average; $1,095 is a real number, it meets the need, and we have built in the exemptions. It’s $3 a day. I am not going to stand here and say that my kids are not worth $3 a day.” 

Mahan said she was the one who made the calculation, that $1,095 was based on bringing local students to the state average, and meeting the actual needs within MBUSD. She said cracks in the foundation of local education are beginning to show after years of underfunding. 

“For us to create an adequate school situation for our students, we must raise the level of per pupil funding,” Mahan said. “When you take funding from a parcel tax, it is locally sourced —  it does not sway with the revenue projections and and the ups and downs of the state…The more we begin to just simply kick this can down the road and assume that MBEF will kick in, or we will have pink slips one year and not the other, then in fact, we are letting the cracks prevail. We must begin to find long term support for our school system. Other high performing districts do this. It is extremely common.” 

Another issue that has been hotly contested is the fact that Measure A includes a “kicker” to account for inflation. The City of Manhattan Beach, tasked by Measure A to collect revenue and provide funding oversight, arrived at an inflation kicker, which will be either the current Consumer Price Index or 5 percent, whichever is lower, for the calculation of each year’s parcel tax increase. 

Sinclair again took aim at opposition flyers, including the one signed by Franklin, which claimed that the parcel tax could double over its 12 years. 

“When the city staff went back and looked at historical records they had found that over the past 25 years annual CPI averaged about 2.4 percent,” Sinclair said. “So the 5 percent cap gives a significant ceiling in times of greater inflation to make sure that the funding is still able to be effective. The flyers that I continue to receive say that at current rates of inflation, this tax could double in 12 years. ‘Don’t believe the proponents.’ But the City Council just very clearly stated, and voted to approve a CPI cap that is the lesser of 5 percent, or the current CPI. So there is no mathematical way….you can double to $2,200 a year.” 

Franklin walked that claim slightly back Monday night, but noted that the current CPI is over 8 percent and maintained that the Measure A increase would be significant. 

“If you can predict over there exactly what that inflation is going to be, that would be a pretty amazing thing,” Franklin said. “The thing is, we don’t know. That’s why we hear them bash Prop. 13 all the time. That was put into place so homeowners could keep their home because of runaway inflation back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s…Even at 5 percent, the rate goes from $1,095 over the course of the years all the way up to $1,873. So I’ll go ahead, and I’ll yield the fact that it won’t double. But it will get pretty darn close.” 

Another aspect of Measure A the two sides squared off on was its regressive nature —  the fact that regardless of the value of a home, the homeowner will still pay the same $1,095. 

Wright, who called herself “a numbers gal,” said she’d dug into how other communities had implemented parcel taxes and found a lot of creative solutions. A strict valuation-based tax is not allowed by law, she said, but some communities have combined a flat tax with a tax tied to square footage, while others have not applied a CPI kicker for some portion of their parcel tax timeline. 

“So there is a lot more flexibility than just a flat tax that grows with inflation,” she said. 

Sinclair argued that using square footage would not work in Manhattan Beach because many smaller homes near the ocean would have much higher valuations but would end up paying less than larger homes on the east side of town. 

“So what we focus on, and what most communities who pass a parcel tax focus on, is equity of benefit,” he said. “What we know is that every property owner, whether or not you have a child in the school…benefits from increased property values that are a direct result and directly correlate with high achieving schools. I think it’s important to know that parcel taxes are unique to California. They’ve been in place since 1983 because the state’s structural system for public education is broken. But it’s not just public education. They’re used for police, fire, and parks, and libraries. And because Sacramento has broken the system, perhaps in the case of public education irrevocably, we are left with this choice.” 

Wright countered that she was not arguing for a square footage based tax, but pointing out that there are more creative ways to approach parcel taxes. 

“My point was simply to say I think there is a more collaborative way that we can work with the community on being more flexible about how we implement the tax,” she said, adding that a survey commissioned by MBUSD indicated that a supermajority of voters would approve a $525 tax. 

This is a point Franklin amplified when discussing the issues of enrollment and the length of the tax. He argued that many things could change over 12 years, including state funding and lower enrollment, and that Measure A proponents had used the citizen’s initiative system so they’d only need a simple majority rather than the supermajority required for the last parcel tax. 

“Measure A is rushed,” Franklin said. “I saw the consultant report —  they say do a June primary election because the voter turnout is so much smaller. It’s also not well thought out. This will actually cost people so much more over such a long period of time, and it’s circumventing so many tax initiatives that we’ve had before, it’s circumventing the majority that’s required, it’s circumventing the length of time, and it’s circumventing other processes as well that may put the City in legal jeopardy.” 

“Measure A is not rushed,” Mahan said. “Measure A ran in tandem with the school board’s suggestion of a parcel tax in order to bring more funding to our schools. Yes, there were polls of the community. Yes, they indicated that if a need was identified, people would support the parcel tax.” 

In his closing statement, Dickinson returned to the opposition’s core argument —  that Measure A proposes a tax that would raise more money than needed over more time than makes sense. 

“We’re ending where we started, which is we’re not one of the lowest funded,” he said. “That needs to be one factor for considering. If we’re really declining in enrollment that much, how long can you hold on to certain costs if we think that’s going to continue —  because as we get more affluent, we have more students going to other schools. We have to deal with that, not just put a bunch of money in, and then hope that it goes away, and then spread more money across fewer kids.” 

Sinclair likewise ended where he’d started. 

“When you leave here tonight, if there’s one thing to take away, let it be this: Our schools are underfunded,” Sinclair said. “They have struggled for years and it is no longer sustainable. California has underfunded public school education for decades, and the system is broken. The only mechanism that we have left to ensure that our schools can thrive is to take back local control of our schools from Sacramento. These are our children’s schools, our community’s, schools. If we want to maintain them, we have to protect them, and we have to invest in them.” ER 


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