More than a dozen Bay Area school districts will have their hands out this election day, asking voters to pay more in property taxes to fund facilities or, in some cases, to keep paying salaries.
The parcel tax and bond measures range from a property tax increase of $72 in one low-income San Jose community to an extension of an $836 parcel tax in wealthy Palo Alto.
In San Francisco, district officials are hoping two-thirds of city residents will support Proposition J, a $288 parcel tax that would generate about $48 million per year, with the money primarily going toward teacher raises and other benefits, to help retain and attract educators, officials said.
The measure is something of a redo, a parcel tax similar to the one nearly 61% of voters approved in 2018, which has since been caught up in a legal dispute over whether the simple-majority threshold is valid.
Because Prop. J would replace the 2018 initiative, it would not further increase property taxes.
The district has been dipping into its reserves in recent years to cover costs, including skyrocketing pension and special-education obligations, as well as raises and rising health premiums. The pandemic has exacerbated an ongoing budget shortfall, which was expected to reach $57 million this academic year and $95 million next year.
State pandemic funding as well as $47 million in spending reductions brought the district back into the black this year.
“Our city faces unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and budget shortfalls that severely hurt our city’s schools,” said Mayor London Breed and other supporters in the ballot argument. “Funds collected through Prop. J will be spent entirely to improve the San Francisco Unified School District.”
Former San Francisco supervisor and retired Judge Quentin Kopp has publicly opposed the measure, saying parcel taxes are unfair because they charge all parcels the same amount, whether they are a cottage or Salesforce Tower.
Parcel tax measures, which can pay for a range of expenses including salaries, typically require a two-thirds majority to pass, while bond measures, which are only for facility expenses, require approval by 55% of voters.
Local parcel taxes have long been used to supplement state and federal funding, allowing districts to spend more on teacher pay, art and music, libraries or other school staff, programs or materials.
Yet parcel taxes can exacerbate inequities in education, with wealthier communities willing and able to generate significant revenue from them.
“Parcel taxes are more advantageous for more affluent areas or areas with higher property tax values,” said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association. “Obviously in an era of scarce resources and rising costs, parcel taxes are a mechanism that school districts are going to use to increase support for students and to pay for compensation and services that are part of education.”
In Marin County’s Tamalpais Union High School District, officials are asking voters to renew a $469 parcel tax that will raise $16.8 million annually — or nearly $3,277 per student.
The funding, according to the measure’s official wording, would “maintain excellent hands-on science, technology, engineering, math, reading and writing instruction; attract/retain highly qualified teachers; and support music/art.”
The Franklin-McKinley Elementary School District in San Jose, by comparison, is asking voters to approve a $72 parcel tax, which would raise $1.2 million annually, or $123 per student, and fund small class sizes, retain teachers, enhance reading, math and science programs, and expand access to after-school programs.
Measure K would supplement an existing parcel tax of $72.
“Ultimately, the best answer is for the state to provide a high level of base funding, so every student regardless of ZIP code or background has the resources for high-quality education,” Flint said. “In the absence of that, we will continue to see districts push parcel taxes if they think their community will support them.”