School Beat: A Parcel Tax for Schools

by Lisa Schiff on January 31, 2008

A potential parcel tax to support San Francisco’s public schools had its debut this past weekend. While the proposal is being announced at a moment of great budget uncertainty and distress, this possible source of money has been talked about for quite some time as an essential steady stream of revenue invulnerable to the whims of the state. Such reliable resources are an absolute necessity for addressing long-term costs such as teachers’ salaries and even staffing levels.

The dismal funding level for California’s schools is a chronic condition first contracted with the passage of the infamous Proposition 13 legislation, which radically reduced property tax levels. That one single event pushed our schools over the edge from being one of the best funded to being one of the worst, on a per pupil basis. Additional funding challenges include an increase in “categorical” funding, meaning money is allocated to schools by the legislature, but it must be spent on specific programs, not on general operational costs such as teacher salaries or to address cost overruns from other mandated programs, such as special education or food. Compounding this situation for San Francisco and for many other urban districts across the country and certainly in our state, is the issue of declining enrollment, as some families choose private (secular or religious) schools and many more leave the City entirely.

Reversing the trend of declining enrollment is necessary for many reasons, and while it would help the revenue problem, it would not solve it entirely. The lack of funding is not just about the number of students enrolled, but more significantly how much is being budgeted per student, an amount hovering around $7,860 in 2004 according to the state department of education, ranking us 33rd in the country for spending levels comparison. A brief overview of school finance can be found as part of the “Getting Down to Facts” study from Stanford.

General consensus (and common sense) is that this funding level is insufficient, but with the state and the federal governments unwilling to accept this fact, despite the reports of their own advisors, and with their alternative being more and more testing and more standardization of practices, school districts have no choice but to turn to their own communities to support their schools.

San Francisco is fortunate because despite the low-percentage of children in our City, our residents understand the importance of education and have passed bonds and city-based funding strategies to support schools in the past. Most notable are the recent facilities bonds and the City’s Proposition H that gives funding to supplement Sports, Libraries, Art and Music, and to support increased access to preschool as well.

Supporting these core educational areas is essential, and it’s wonderful that San Franciscan’s have stepped up to the plate, unlike our state leaders. Another area that is essential, and poses some unique challenges for our district is in the area of teacher recruitment and retention, in part because of the low level of teacher salaries that make working in the City with its high-cost of living unaffordable. Right now, beginning teachers in the San Francisco Unified School District are paid $44,446 and teachers at the top of the scale are making $77,630.

For many people, this salary is insufficient to get by on and so teacher turn-over is quite high. According to the district’s presentation over the weekend, every year one out of every five new teachers leaves the SFUSD, which means money has been lost on the hiring and training costs, and school communities are dealing with a constant churn of personnel. Importantly, schools most likely to experience this are those with students needing the most experienced, stable teaching staff.

In addition to the challenges of salaries, there are also challenges regarding the conditions of work, a factor which has been found to be even more significant than income. In our district the working conditions include among other things, professional development opportunities and infrastructure concerns, such as the availability of technology.

The proposed parcel tax, developed in a partnership between the district and the teachers union is a direct approach to dealing with these difficulties by creating a reliable, locally controlled source of funds sufficient to support increased teacher salaries and to improve our available technology. On the table is a tax of just under $198 per parcel, with an exemption for senior citizens, and is expected to bring in $28 million annually. Such funding would position our district to be more effective in recruiting and retaining teachers, by enabling us to raise salaries, focus on a variety of professional development strategies (including strengthening the Peer Assistance Review program for teachers who are not meeting expectations), and updating our technology.

Like other local public funding measures, the proposed parcel tax would have oversight components in the form of a citizen’s oversight committee and an outside auditor, providing the ability to ensure that our public dollars are going towards the specific ends for which they were intended.

Public meetings about the parcel tax will be coming up in February. These should be opportunities to learn more of the details that hopefully will enable all of us to be confident not only in voting for the tax when it is on the June ballot, but in encouraging others to do so as well.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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