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LETTER TO THE EDITOR:You can’t see the urban forest for the trees

You Can’t See the Urban Forest for the Trees (or is it an Urban Jungle?) & Other Property Value Related Topics

By Jim Young
February 20, 2004

Today, Supervisor John Gioia reminded the Richmond Rotary that one of the quickest ways to improve your property values is to improve your schools. This is something the people of Walnut Creek figured out a long time ago. And, the value accrues to everyone, whether or not their property has a view or a magnificent Valley Oak, or it’s a third floor condo in a five story building. Which, now that I have your attention, brings us to Measure J, the current, but not the last tax increase that will be offered to West County residents and property owners, “…for the children”.

For as long as I’ve lived in West County saving the schools, “…for the children”, has been a mantra. It’s difficult to understand how after three decades and billions of dollars local schools are facing a budget crisis that is $2.5 million to $6.5million larger than the deficit that forced the district into receivership in 1991. I’ve pondered this situation for many years. There is, in my opinion a core problem and it is rooted in the very dim past.

It is certain that our district’s problems did not start in 1991 with Walter Marks, his $17 million deficit or the district voter’s refusal to pass the $270/year parcel tax that would pay off the deficit and maintained local control of the schools. Our district’s problems didn’t start in 1982 when Superintendent “Dr.” Dick Lovett became a “hero” by keeping underutilized schools open resulting in operating deficits that precipitated his termination, I mean retirement, in 1986. (Yogi Barra would call this aspect of the current crisis, “Déjà vu all over again”.)

It didn’t even start in 1979 with Prop 13, although the disappearance of the magically ever increasing property tax revenue stream did require all public sector budgets, including the schools, be balanced “in the short run”. Fundamentally I don’t think the district’s budget problems started with the more fundamental but more obscure Serrano vs. Priest law suit that required the State to create “equal school funding” by removing property tax based financing and creating “equal” per student State funding of school budgets.

I think this school district’s “budget problems” started in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with local district unification and the creation of the Richmond Unified School District. When that happened local citizens accepted the premise that the cost of public education was more important than local control. Unification (here and in all the other cities throughout the state) allowed the burgeoning and tax starved suburbs of El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Pinole, etc. to tap into what was then an impressive industrial tax base in Richmond and North Richmond. Serrano vs. Priest took “unification” statewide. Even if it had the altruistic objective of improving education in Alturas, El Centro and Nipomo, it allowed the burgeoning suburbs of the East & South Bay, L.A., Orange & San Diego Counties to tape into the massive sales and income tax revenues being collected by the State from established communities. It was a growth strategy and it actually worked in the short run, but it clearly hid the actual costs of maintenance and operation in budgets that were described as growth budgets. It also forfeited local control and local accountability.

As things got bigger and more complicated, and as the schools’ mission was changed from education to the delivery vehicle for every social engineering scheme that has come out of Washington or Sacramento, school administration and decision making became the exclusive domain of technocrats and special interest groups.

Which brings us back to local control and accountability and Measure J. It is at best, a $7.5 million dollar solution for a $20 million dollar problem. Given the fact that the proposed solution won’t solve the problem, you have to ask yourself the question, “What is the school board REALLY going to do with the money? Who’s going to get, and, who ain’t.”. On another day, preferably before the next school board election, you might ask another question, “Why didn’t the school board propose a tax that might actually solve the problem, say 25 cents per square foot?” Yeah that is four times as much, but then you also have to ask yourself, “What is public education really worth”. Don’t forget what John Gioia said.

That core problem, in case you missed it, is the human weakness to want something for nothing. At the risk of over simplification, that 1950s proposition might be characterized as, “You give me your operating authority and I’ll give you lower taxes and better schools.”

Run dates: 2004-02-21 - 2004-03-06

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