L.A. school tax measure defeated

Mayor Eric Garcetti, Superintendent Austin Beutner and school board members are expected Wednesday to discuss the next steps for the Los Angeles Unified School District following the defeat of a parcel tax that would have generated millions of dollars.

Measure EE needed a two-thirds majority to be approved but wasn't able to receive a majority of yes votes, losing 54.32%-45.68%, according to semi-official results released Wednesday by the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.

The measure would have imposed a parcel tax of 16 cents per square foot of building improvements on properties within the district. LAUSD officials estimated the tax would have raised about $500 million a year for 12 years.

Winning approval of the tax was considered vital for the district, which was relying on the new revenue source to help cover the costs of staffing and salary agreements it made with the United Teachers Los Angeles union to resolve a crippling teachers' strike earlier this year.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and Beutner, who are often at loggerheads politically, presented a unified front on the campaign trail in support of the measure, insisting it is vital for district's financial future.

The measure also had the backing of political heavyweights, led by Garcetti. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls also stumped in favor of the measure, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

"Voting yes on EE will reduce class sizes and add nurses, counselors and arts and music in our local schools,'' Garcetti said as he urged people to go to the polls. "If people stay home, nothing changes for our children, and the future for all of us will pay the price.''

The measure was opposed by business interests, led by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber contended there was no guarantee the money raised by the measure would go toward reducing classroom size or funding nurses and librarians in schools -- all while the district has no plan for addressing its "unfunded pension obligations, increasing healthcare costs or cost structure of a large organization with declining student enrollment.''

"We agree with the goal of having a strong public education system -- it's essential and we will keep fighting for it,'' chamber President/CEO Maria Salinas said before Tuesday's vote. "But Measure EE is not the answer and we need to say no to this rushed tax measure.''

LAUSD officials insisted there would be an independent oversight committee monitoring the use of money raised by the tax.

"The committee will help ensure every dollar is going to support schools and the needs and education of our students,'' Beutner said.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit last month seeking to block Tuesday's election, accusing the district of violating the state's open-meeting law in the way it placed the measure on the ballot. A judge declined to block the election but scheduled a hearing for Thursday to discuss the issues.

The suit contends the district acted illegally by changing the wording of the measure after it was approved by the board in February. The original language of the ballot measure stated that "habitable'' square footage would be subject to the tax. But that language was amended in March by Beutner, stating the tax would affect "all buildings or structures'' on a given property.

The change sparked outrage from some business groups who suggested that the district was trying to quietly expand the reach of the levy to generate additional funding by taxing structures such as parking garages.

In response to the concerns, the LAUSD board in early May approved a resolution affirming that the levy excludes residential or commercial parking structures.

Yusef Robb of the Yes on EE campaign blasted the allegations in the HJTA lawsuit and others accusing the district of doctoring the wording of the measure.

"This is just flim-flam from a lobbyist-led campaign that's twisting the facts and the law to keep their clients from paying their fair share for our neighborhood schools,'' Robb said.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has also filed complaints with the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the District Attorney's Office, accusing the district of using public resources to campaign on behalf of the measure.

"Everything from huge Measure EE banners festooning school grounds, cajoling school personnel to spend district time on the EE campaign, raffles set up by the district, sending mail to targeted voters and using school children as conduits for both campaign material and voter data needs to be investigated,'' said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

LAUSD attorney David Holmquist dismissed the association's accusations, calling them "an unfortunate attempt to manufacture a false media story.''

"They are frivolous and wholly lacking in merit,'' Holmquist said. "Voters should understand this is a referendum on the need for local funding to support Los Angeles public schools.''

CNS contributed to this report.