MBUSD to seek parcel tax, lay off teachers
by Mark McDermott
The Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board of Education last week moved to put a parcel tax measure on the June ballot and also approved the elimination of 4.6 teaching positions.
Discussion of the parcel tax has been ongoing for several months as a means for helping the district find a stable source of funds in light of erratic and inadequate state funds. The board voted unanimously to seek a $225 per parcel tax on city property owners, but the measure would give senior citizens the option to exempt themselves.
“I believe its passage is vital for the long-term viability of our school district,” said Superintendent Mike Matthews in an interview following the Feb. 28 school board meeting. “ I think we’ve made it clear that the state funding model is flawed and will not work in the long run. In fact, we see serious shortfalls in the upcoming years. So we will work to explain that and work to make sure our seniors know they can be exempted if they wish. We hope we can set up our schools up for decades to come.”
The backdrop for both board actions is a looming budget deficit. State funding has not kept pace with costs, resulting in projected $10 million shortfalls by 2021. The district, due to a complex array of circumstances that includes a funding model established in 1978 that does not account for MBUSD operating a high school, has been forced to contemplate as many as 60 teacher layoffs in coming years.
Education funding in the state has been chronically anemic. By most estimates, California is either 44th or 46th in per-pupil funding, and the states below it — such as Arkansas and Mississippi — all have a much lower cost of living, meaning in real dollars the state provides less funding for education than any other. Because it is frozen at 1978 property tax percentages — only 20 percent of local property taxes go to local schools — MBUSD is among the lowest funded in the state. Governor Jerry Brown addressed the issue with his Local Control Funding Formula, but those funds applied to schools in poorer areas and will leave MBUSD without enough funds to cover growing costs, especially in special education and employee benefit costs.
“When we heard from our lawmakers, (Senator) Ben Allen and (Assemblyman) Al Muratsuchi, they both said the same thing — Sacramento is not going to come to the rescue here,” Matthews said. “The only change that could be made right now is in local communities. And the primary mechanism we have for that is a parcel tax.”
The district made widespread cuts “away from the classroom” during the Great Recession, leaving teacher layoffs the only remaining option. The board also approved the non-renewal of 11 temporary teachers. If the parcel tax fails, dozens of more teacher layoffs will follow in upcoming years.
But the hope among district leadership is the passage of a parcel tax will provide necessary funds to stave off the most dire projections. School board President Karen Komatinsky said the significance, however, is beyond solving immediate financial challenges. The ballot filing asked that the proposed tax be called Measure MB on the ballot, she said, and that name was chosen for a reason.
“The idea behind it is that this is not only about our schools but about our community,” she said. “This is about raising a village. This is bigger than just the funding itself; it’s about local control… And it’s about the fact that great things can be accomplished in this community when we all pull together. This is really a measure that puts us in the driver’s seat, that gives us the ability to control our educational destiny.”
Though the district has managed to fill gaps through the efforts of the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, MB/X, and booster clubs, Komatinsky said those sources are not enough to provide a sustainable solution for the gap between state funding and the costs of providing a good education.
“The parameters put upon us — really, to how we are defined by California — does not leave us with a lot of local control,” she said. “We have very little to none.”
The parcel tax would generate about $3 million a year. When the school board first discussed the idea of a parcel tax more than a year ago, the target was twice that much, but polling indicated the community wasn’t likely to support a tax bigger than $225 a year. The measure requires 66 percent voter approval.
A committee to head up the campaign has been formed, co-chaired by two veterans of the school bonds passed in 2016, Jennifer Fenton and Jeff Serota. School bonds cannot pay for teacher salaries or directly for any programs but are legally required to raise money for infrastructure only.