Mark McDermott

Manhattan Beach voters approve parcel tax to fund schools

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Yes on MB volunteers celebrating victory on Tuesday night are (left to right) Mike Brunick, MBUSD school board member Ellen Rosenberg, campaign co-chair Jen Fenton, Wysh Weinstein, Leasa Ireland and campaign co-chair Jeff Serota. Photo by Mark McDermott

by Mark McDermott

Measure MB, a $225-a-year parcel tax intended to give the Manhattan Beach Unified School District a stable, local source of funds, was approved by voters Tuesday night.

The measure, which required two-thirds approval, passed with 68 percent in favor  (5,230 votes) versus 32 percent opposed (2,425 votes). The parcel tax will generate $2.65 million annually and expire after six years. Its passage will enable the district, one the highest-achieving in the nation, to avoid teacher layoffs and educational program cuts.

The Board of Education moved to pursue the parcel tax in March, and a vigorous, community-led Yes on MB campaign quickly coalesced. More than 150 volunteers campaigned on its behalf.

“It was real grassroots,” said Karen Komatinsky, school board president. “This was old school recruiting.”

It was also a daunting task. Primary elections are typically low turnout, meaning the most diligent voters, senior citizens, would weigh heavily in its outcome; but those voters, who are often on a fixed income, also have less of a direct stake in local schools. Measure MB offered seniors the ability to exempt their homes. But a previous proposed parcel tax, in 2003, was defeated, and winning two-thirds approval on any measure is always a steep challenge.

Turnout was indeed less than half of the nearly 19,000 voters who participated locally in the November, 2016, election. But Yes on MB co-chair Jen Fenton said support came from every corner of the community. She said Measure MB’s passage was a statement of just how much Manhattan Beach values education.

“At the end of the day, everybody benefits from strong schools,” Fenton said. “I am so proud to be a Manhattan Beach resident, and so proud of the way the community came together —  from the volunteers to local businesses to empty nesters, everybody embraced Measure MB.”

A defeat at the ballot would have been catastrophic for MBUSD. State funding for education has not kept pace with increasing costs, meaning the district has had an operational deficit nearly every year since 2011. Recent changes to state educational funding were aimed at lower income communities and failed to address MBUSD’s unique dilemma. The district, due to a complex array of circumstances that includes a funding model established at the time Prop. 13 was enacted in 1978 that does not account for MBUSD operating a high school, keeps only 20 percent of local property taxes and thus ranks in the bottom 1 percent of school districts in funding. California ranks 46th in the nation in per pupil funding. Hence, factoring in cost-of-living, MBUSD was in an unlikely connundrom — nestled in one of the more affluent communities in the world , its schools are among lowest funded in the nation. Yet MBUSD schools have also continued to be among the most academically high-achieving in the country.

“The school district does not get enough credit for how it has continued to do more with less,” said Jeff Serota, Yes on MB co-chair. “But it is just not sustainable. We need a stable source of revenue.”

Matters were coming to a head, as the district has eaten away at its reserves, which were at $22 million in 2011 and now just above state requirements, at $13 million. Its operational budget deficit was projected to reach $10 million annually by 2021. The school board would have been forced to contemplate as many as 60 teacher layoffs.

Measure MB had its roots in a presentation former Manhattan Beach Education Foundation executive director Farnaz Flechner gave 68 times over the past few years throughout the community. MBEF has been essential to keeping the district’s educational programs intact, raising $6 million annually in recent years, but Flechner realized this funding would not keep up with increasing costs. The upshot of her presentation was that nearly every other high-achieving school district in California had turned to parcel taxes to stabilize funding.

“She laid the groundwork,” Fenton said. “And we were lucky enough to run with it.”

Still, it was the kind of complex issue that often doesn’t convey well in political campaign. At a campaign party Tuesday night at a home in the city’s Tree Section, district leaders, volunteers, and elected officials waited nervously for results. Finally, well after midnight, when most of the city’s 22 voting precincts were finally tallied, the mood in the air was more a collective sigh of relief than outright celebration.

“This campaign was not about catchy slogans,” said MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews. “It was about long conversations that a lot of volunteers have had with the citizens of Manhattan Beach to educate and inform. We have intelligent voters who understand the issues, and this victory means we have successfully communicated to them.”

LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who helped Measure MB by funding a few campaign mailers, paid a visit to the campaign party to show support.

“I think what we are finding is if we are going to solve our problems, we are going to have to do it locally,” Hahn said. “I think communities are finding that less help is coming from Washington D.C., less help is coming from Sacramento, and if they are going to make sure their schools are good and they can continue to hire qualified teachers, they have to do it locally. That is what this is — a community controlling its own destiny by raising money to fund its schools. And Manhattan Beach knows that there is a direct correlation between schools and the quality of life and the economy in Manhattan Beach. People move here because of the schools.”

Serota said that Measure MB was more than a parcel tax. It was also a measure of just how deeply tied the community is to its schools.

“People love the beach,” Serota said. “But they live here for the schools.” ER

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