Parcel taxes beat the odds

Voters remain up in the air about passing a statewide tax to help schools, according to recent polls. But given a chance to support local schools exclusively, more than two-thirds of voters in nine school districts said yes – a wide enough margin to pass a parcel tax. Even the four parcel taxes that lost got over 60 percent support and would have passed had the threshold for passage been 55 percent – an idea that’s been kicking around for years but can’t get out of the Legislature for lack of Republican votes. *

Voters on Tuesday passed  23 of 34 school construction bond proposals. Source: Michael Coleman, League of California Cities. (click to enlarge)

Voters on Tuesday passed 23 of 34 school construction bond proposals. Source: Michael Coleman, League of California Cities. (Click to enlarge)

Also in Tuesday’s primary, voters in 23 K-12 districts passed nearly $2 billion worth of school construction bonds, a strong commitment in uncertain times. A piece of that money in some districts will go toward upgrading technology, critical as districts move toward implementing Common Core standards with digital textbooks and computer-administered assessments. Bond measures in an additional 11 districts were rejected, although a few came tantalizingly close to the 55 percent needed for approving school bonds.

For 2012, 13 of 18 parcel taxes have passed; that’s 72 percent, which is higher than the historical passage rate of 58 percent. Among the losers on Tuesday were a $54, four-year parcel tax in Santa Barbara, which would have replaced a $50 tax due to expire next year, and a parcel tax in West Contra Costa Unified based on a home’s size – 10.2 cents per square foot. But voters there can get another chance, if the school board is inclined, since the existing 7.2 cents per square foot won’t expire for two years.

Parcel taxes are one of the few ways that school districts can raise money. They’re predominately found in high-cost Northern California, especially the half-dozen counties in the Bay Area, with a smattering in wealthy districts around Los Angeles. Most parcel taxes are under $100, especially initial parcel taxes. The exceptions on Tuesday were an eight-year, $458 tax in Ross Valley School District in Marin County, replacing a $309 parcel tax, and a $123, eight-year tax for elementary and high schools in Santa Cruz; it passed with more than 80 percent of the vote.

Because of the passage of Proposition 13, parcel taxes cannot be based on a property’s value. Because McMansions, cottages, and office buildings are all charged the same, parcel taxes are regressive, unrelated to an ability to pay. So it’s ironic that both tax initiatives on the November ballot, which would raise money by raising the graduated income tax (Gov. Jerry Brown’s would also include a ¼ cent increase in the sales tax) are doing far worse than the parcel taxes and bond measures. Attorney Molly Munger’s Our Children, Our Future tax would send money directly to schools – essentially what parcel taxes do – though that feature is not widely known.

Voters favor local control with their money, which appears to be why parcel taxes, for all their faults and limited geographical range, continue to do well.

* Thanks to Mike McMahon, school consultant and trustee of the Alameda Unified School District, who tracks historic and current information on parcel taxes and other school data.

This entry was posted in Revenue and taxes, Taxes on by .

About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

8 thoughts on “Parcel taxes beat the odds

  1. Paul Muench

    Makes me wonder if this is a statement about trust or a financial statement.  With the continued support of term limits in CA it does seem that about 60% of us don’t expect the public at large to ne able place a worthy vote.  Or maybe its just that people prefer a fixed cost over a varible one.  Its a common phenomenon that people will pay a higher fixed fee rather thhan bet on paying a lower fee that is variable in nature.

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  3. navigio

    Paul its a great question. Its not always possible to tell without more understanding of the district in question. There are so many variables. The level of trust obviously plays a role in whether the tax will be passed. That can often correlate to attendance patterns (eg how much of the community uses traditional public schools vs charter and private schools). It also can often simply relate to ability to pay. A quick run-down of the districts listed shows the ones that passed parcel taxes had about a half point higher median PEL (parent education level) than the ones that failed. PEL generally translates to income level, and thus ability to pay (they also had higher APIs, which may translate to trust, but of course PEL is related pretty directly to API anyway). An additional factor is the level of home ownership. Communities with many renters may find parcel taxes easier to pass since it is the owners of the properties who are on the hook. An irony is often those owners may not even live in the district. Obviously those costs can be passed on, but unless the amount is large, that is unlikely. Ironically, it seems not unlikely for voters to pass facilities bond measures, but reject parcel taxes destined for education. That also probably is a direct function of trust of the district and the educational system in general.
    In any case, even though a non-ad valorem parcel tax is technically regressive, I think its important to point out that the tax differs by district, and that difference is highly likely to be related to ability to pay. A rich district may have a parcel tax of $1000/year, while a poorer, neighboring district, might have one below $100. In addition, the tax is applied to property owners. So unless the district is humungous and there is huge discrepancy in income and property values, and maybe unless home ownership levels are high, its probably not really fair to refer to it as regressive in the sense we generally use that word. IMHO. :-)

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  4. Ann Serino

    . . . and the school districts in cities that are not able to pass a parcel tax —  well . . .  they are, just plain out of luck and the gap between the “have” school districts and the “have not” school districts widens.  Just read yesterday that Governor Brown has in his May revise a plan to cut the science requirement for graduating high school from two years, to one year, because it’s a money saver for the state.  Actually, schools haven’t received all funds they are due for two years of science since 2005, so this plan would just make it official.  Nice, huh?  So the districts with parcel taxes can give their students more than one year of high school science and the districts without a parcel tax may not be able to.
    The governor plans to hit our public schools with 90% of the cuts to balance the budget (even though they get 40% of the funds) if his Schools and Safety tax initiative doesn’t pass in November.  But even if his tax measure passes, the money won’t go directly to our schools.  It will be lumped into the general fund and then doled out.  In his initiative, the governor guarantees money to prisons.  For schools, there is no guarantee.  Prop 98 is a constantly changing mirage.   I am very concerned for our schools.

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  5. julie

    Great article. Thank you.  What’s the hold up with Senator Joe Simitian’s bill SCA-5?  Would love to see parcel taxes pass at a simple majority.
    Micheal- you’re right about it being tougher to pass in Southern California. Senator Lou Correa (Anaheim, Buena Park, Santa Ana)  has signed the “no tax pledge” and that is making SCA-5 difficult to pass.
    You can contact him here and ask him to support SCA-5.  We all need schools with better funding.

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