L.A. voters are being asked to raise property taxes to help schools. Here's why supporters are optimistic

Construction workers and riggers use a crane to lift prefabricated classroom sections made of recycled shipping containers into position at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center on Friday, April 21, 2017 in San Fernando, Calif. A new project will provide upgraded classrooms on an L.A. Unified campus that hosts a charter school, replacing 21 old portable classrooms with new construction classrooms made with recycled shipping containers. (Patrick T. Fallon/ For The Los Angeles Times)
Workers build classrooms at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in 2017 in San Fernando. Measure RR, on the November ballot, would provide $7 billion for school construction and modernization. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

The Los Angeles Unified School district is asking voters to increase their property taxes and approve a $7-billion bond measure that would pay for campus renovation and construction as well as technology, which has risen to prime importance during coronavirus-forced distance learning.

School bonds in Los Angeles and statewide have not fared well lately, but supporters of Measure RR have reason for optimism — there's no significant opposition campaign and the November electorate is expected to be more tax friendly.

A possible parallel would be Measure Q, which the school district put on the ballot in 2008. That earlier $7-billion bond measure passed easily during the November election that brought Barack Obama to office. Then as now, liberal leaning Democrats were especially inspired to vote.

"The much higher turnout of a presidential election will increase turnout among voters who are strong supporters of education and schools," said veteran political consultant Bill Carrick, who is not working on the bond campaign. "Younger voters, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Democrats will all turn out at higher levels. These voters should be largely Yes on Measure RR voters."

The largest school district in California has a long list of repairs and upgrades, including work on ceilings, bus purchases, new air conditioners and seismic retrofits. Also on the list are mobile computers and other technology.

To pass, 55% of voters who live within L.A. Unified boundaries — which extend beyond the city of Los Angeles — would have to cast ballots in favor of Measure RR.

How much would taxes increase?

To make the bond tax more appealing — and less noticeable — L.A. Unified officials say the measure is structured to keep the overall tax rate for schools about where it is now, through 2034, before it begins to taper off over the following 20 years. The annual property tax payment for schools during that peak period would be about $140 per $100,000 of assessed property value. This figure would include Measure RR and other previously passed bonds that taxpayers are still paying off.

The share of that tax bill resulting from Measure RR by itself would work out, on average, to $22 a year per $100,000 of assessed property value.

How do bond funds address schools' pandemic needs?

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced campuses to close in March, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner moved quickly to allocate $80 million left over from previous bonds to purchase up to 200,000 computers to meet the distance-learning needs of students who did not have a computer.

The district used other funding sources — including state and federal coronavirus relief aid — to purchase hot spots for broadband access, which students also needed. So far, the district has not used bond funds to purchase off-campus internet access, but that would be allowed under Measure RR.

Although the district hopes pandemic costs will be covered by outside emergency aid, Measure RR funds would be permitted to cover a wide range of these expenses, including "well-ventilated spaces, hand sanitizing stations, touchless faucets, automatic flush urinals and toilets, motion-sensor hand dryers, touchless/hands-free/automatic doors, and physical barriers such as clear plastic sneeze guards," according to the resolution approved by the school board.

Will these bonds be used for computers?

Because bonds are paid back over decades and technology often has a short shelf life, some argue that bond money should not be used for such purchases. But fewer have made this argument as the role of technology in schools has increased.

Before the pandemic L.A. Unified students did not typically have a school-issued computer for home use. Instead, the district set up each student with an account to use from any computer at school or home. Not every class used computers every day, so there were generally enough to go around as needed.

Since campuses closed in March, students from low-income families without computers and internet access have been disproportionally harmed in distance learning.

The school board's Measure RR resolution makes it clear that money will be spent to continue to bridge this digital divide, specifying the need to purchase "119,400 new computing devices annually, and a total of 1.2 million new individual computing devices over 12 years as the existing devices age, become unreliable and no longer perform as needed."

How have school bonds fared in elections?

In March, voters statewide defeated school bonds. In June 2019, local voters rejected Measure EE, a parcel tax to fund L.A. Unified schools. This setback was a huge disappointment because district leaders had hoped to build on momentum from a six-day teachers strike in January of that year, when polls indicated strong support for increased school funding. The previous try for a parcel tax also failed in 2010.

The Measure RR tax rates are linked to the assessed value of residential and commercial properties. Measure RR proceeds, instead of going to the district's general fund — where they could be used, for example, to pay for teachers and nurses — would pay for construction and facilities-related purchases. This kind of bond typically fuels the construction industry, and business and labor groups have united in support.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. opposes the measure as an unfair additional burden, asserting that past bond funds have not been spent efficiently.

What happens if Measure RR fails?

It will be harder for the district to make needed repairs as existing bond funds run out. The district's oldest campuses are more than 100 years old. The district would ultimately try again for a bond.

If the measure falls short, tax rates for schools would taper off within the next few years as earlier bonds are paid off. The entire existing debt will be retired in about 2052, according to district documents. School bonds are just a portion of overall property taxes, which rise or fall based on many factors.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.