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Lesson 8.10

Parcel Taxes:
Only in California...

So you want to pass a parcel tax. Here’s how.

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If a school community in California wants to significantly increase funding for the basic operation of its own local schools, there is one option: the parcel tax.

California is the only state in America that uses this particular form of property tax to fund schools, for reasons tied up with Proposition 13. This famous ballot initiative, passed by California voters in 1978, prohibits school districts from raising property taxes based on the value of property (“ad valorem taxes”), except for General Obligation bonds for facilities. Parcel taxes are hard to pass; they require two-thirds voter approval, not just a simple majority.

Hacking 13
Let's find a hack
'round Prop 13
a parcel tax
to staunch the bleed
and give some schools
the dough they need
if two out of three
agree.

Most parcel taxes assess a flat fee on each parcel of property, no matter its size or value. The owner of a small single family home in a modest neighborhood pays the same tax as the corporate owner of a manufacturing plant or large apartment complex. These taxes are, unavoidably, regressive & a flat fee is a larger burden on less expensive properties (and less wealthy property owners). Some districts have added provisions to their parcel tax measures that cause taxes to vary, but usually this is used to avoid taxing parcels owned by senior citizens who might otherwise vote no.

About a tenth of students in California attend a school supported by a parcel tax.

Because a 2/3 vote is difficult to secure, less than half of California districts have attempted to pass a parcel tax. More than half of the parcel tax elections held since 1983 have passed, but the districts that passed them represent less than 10% of the student population of California.

Revenue Measures Passed

Source: EdSource via Ed-Data.org

Most of the school districts that have passed a parcel tax are located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Check Ballotpedia.org to find out more about these measures.

Parcel tax measures are generally expressed in terms of dollars per parcel or dollars per square foot, which makes them difficult to compare because school districts vary massively in the number of parcels they include. If you are thinking about the impact of a proposed parcel tax on children in your district, you'll need to do the math to figure out what it will raise in terms of annual dollars per student.

Parcel tax measures are often written with provisions to express the intended purposes for the money raised. For example, a parcel tax measure might direct funds specifically toward art and music education. Or toward teacher collaboration time, or field trips, or other specific community priorities. Some parcel tax measures include provisions to create a community oversight committee to help ensure that the funds are used for the intended purpose.

Education advocates regularly discuss the possibility of reducing the passage threshold for parcel taxes, usually to 55%. Why 55%? Because it has a precedent. For many years after Prop 13 passed, bond measures for school construction and renovation required a 2/3 vote to pass. Few did, and as a result schools became decrepit and crowded. Voters lowered the “super-majority” required to pass school facility bonds to 55% in 2001. (See Lesson 5.9.)

If the passage rate for local parcel taxes for schools were lowered, many more communities would pass them, as discussed in this short video from the Public Policy Institute of California. (Sharp-eyed readers, noting that this research was conducted 2013, might wonder if it is out of date. Nope. The issues, patterns and policy choices remain largely unchanged.)

Equity concerns

All proposals that make it easier for local communities to raise money for schools risk bumping up against concerns about equitable funding, the same issues that created California’s landmark school finance case: Serrano v Priest. (Note: Ed100 author Jeff Camp has suggested an alternative, the "tandem bike" approach.)

Here's what it takes

Passing a local tax measure is hard work that has to be done by community members. A school district cannot use public funds to push them. To succeed, local campaigns in support of schools must engage whole communities in public education issues, challenges, and opportunities. It's door-to-door, handshake-to-handshake work. If you are thinking about it, start with a visit to the registrar of voters in your county to understand the process.

Learn much more about parcel taxes and school bonds in our blog.

The next lesson delves into one more way communities support their schools — as volunteers. Volunteer resources are noteworthy, but seldom accounted for in a meaningful way.

Updated September 2017, November 2019, February 2020.

Review

Parcel tax measures can support local schools, but they are difficult to pass, because they require a two-thirds supermajority vote. About what portion of California's students attend a school that is supported by a local parcel tax?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek July 4, 2020 at 3:49 pm
Our district sadly, lost our second Parcel Tax attempt. 2/3 is so challenging. We need out of the box thinkers to help come up with solutions for our district and funding needed.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh December 4, 2019 at 2:30 pm
Our district is in the midst of rallying support for a parcel tax. I don’t think the majority of voters know it needs 2/3 to pass.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale March 4, 2019 at 3:10 pm
I had not realized how infrequently parcel taxes were passed, nor that most of those were concentrated in the SF area. Our school district has managed to get some passed, and from those campaigns I know how strategic an effort it has to be both in terms of to whom you direct efforts, and what message/s you need.
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