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Monday, August 10, 2009

LBUSD Special Elections

If you live within the boundaries of the Long Beach Unified School District, particularly District 3, you will see more activity than you are used to on your local ballot in 2010. In April incumbents Mary Stanton and David Barton are up for re-election and there will be an open election, or an election with an incumbent, in the 3rd District--more later. Then in November 2010 voters are being asked to pass a parcel tax of $92 per year for the next five years--yes a tax with an automatic expiration date, unique in California.

There is some tie in between the LBUSD 3rd District elections that may occur and the parcel tax, both are the result of political power wielded by teachers' unions in California. To recap for those not following their local Press-Telegram or the local websites, earlier this month Michael Ellis submitted his resignation effective September 1, 2009, thereby creating a vacant seat on the school board. Ellis has had quite a history in Long Beach. He is the poster boy for the local teachers' union, the Teachers' Association of Long Beach, attempt to take control of the school board and then hire TALB friendly administrators to run the district in a TALB friendly way--forget the children it was about the union controlling the district. As I wrote extensively on the Long Beach Post website, then TALB director Scott McVarish and some members of the TALB board of directors racked up huge debts to fund three candidates in the 2006 elections for the five member LBUSD school board. Ellis, who had a history with McVarish, was moved into Long Beach to run for his seat, it was discovered he moved to an address that was not in a district up for election so he moved again. The residence he established was after the filing deadline for the 3rd District seat, but City Attorney Robert Shannon allowed him to be on the ballot. He was challenging incumbent Suja Lowenthal, who dropped out of the race when the 2nd District City Council seat became open due to the resignation of Dan Baker. Confused?

Ellis won the election with tens of thousands of dollars of money from TALB and its PAC--funds collected by paycheck deductions from teachers. Subsequently Ellis toed the union line as dictated by McVarish and was on the small side of many 4-1 votes. Meanwhile back at TALB headquarters on the corner of Atlantic and Claiborne there was quite a battle going on. The board was fractionalized with President Michael Day leading the pro-McVarish camp and board member Marc Hyatt taking on a leadership role of the anti-McVarish camp. At one point a majority of the board fired McVarish, but TALB is set up in a weird way and a subset of the organization, the site representatives, overturned the firing and McVarish showed back up to work. Aiding in the internal battles and guiding McVarish and Day through the minefields was Long Beach 5th City Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske who was the on staff legal counsel.

It turns out the anti-McVarish camps did the right thing by firing McVarish for financial impropriety. The local was taken into trusteeship by the California Teachers' Association and an audit was performed. Having read the several hundred page document, if anyone wants a gander let me know, it was evident that financial controls were either not in place or ignored during McVarish's tenure as Executive Director. The CTA trustee dismissed McVarish and many of us in Long Beach thought, hoped, that it would also mean the end of Ellis on the school board. Without his puppet master and mentor around, not being a resident, having what appear to be extensive personal issues and battles to focus on, the assumption was he would resign. Instead he just stopped showing up to meetings. So for more than a year the families and residents of the LBUSD 3rd District have been unrepresented on the school board due to the failure of their elected representive not attending meetings.

Now LBUSD has some legal work to do. With the seat vacant they must call an election date within 30 days of the election, which gives them until the end of September to annouce the election for the seat. The election must then be held within 120 days of the announcement, which if made on September 30, 2009 means the election must be held before January 28, 2010. However if the election is within 120 of a scheduled election, which is April 13, 2010, they can forego the election; 120 days before April 13th is December 14, 2009. Doing all the calendar math it appears that the District can save about $200,000 for a special election for a seat that will be held for a few months--but I am not an attorney and it could be that a special election will have to be held.

An issue with a much larger fiscal impact than a special election to fill the 3rd District seat is also on the election calendar. In July the school board passed by a vote of 4-0 (guess who was absent...right! Ellis) to put on the November 2010 ballot a parcel tax that would add $92 per year to the annual tax bills of the residential property owners within the district's boundaries. It is expected the parcel tax if passed by two-thirds of the votes will generate approximately $11 million during the five year period. The funds will be used to fill the huge holes in the LBUSD budget because of the inability of Sacramento Legislators to properly control the education funds paid to them by the tax payers. While some in the community are complaining that the LBUSD must "live within its budget" the problem is LBUSD has lived within its budget, has cuts tens of millions of dollars out of its budget since 2003, and its budget is pretty much set by Sacramento, not just in revenue but also its expenses by dictating programs to which LBUSD must dedicate funds.

LBUSD, like many districts across the state, are in financial straits because of dedicated funding of programs by state mandate. Sacramento controls how much of our property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes are sent back to our school district, then tells our school district what that money must be spent on--with little to no knowledge of our district and its needs. So in reality our school board and Superintendent become handcuffed when it comes to budgeting for our district and often their job is what needs to get cut because of the mandated program funding, much of it not needed in our district.

Where do these mandates come from? Legislators and policy wonks within the Department of Education. When it comes to the members of the Assembly and State Senate with our gerrymandered districts all a candidate needs to do to gain office is to win the primary in his or her district. If you are a Democrat in Long Beach, or most of Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or most of the districts in the state, and want to be a member of the Assembly just win the primary against other Democrats on the ballot and you are virtually guaranteed election to Sacramento. To win your primary you need money, to get the money you need to make sure you agree to follow the needs of your donors if (when) you get elected.

Guess who spends millions of dollars up and down the state on primaries and elections for members of the Assembly and State Senate, virtually every campaign dollar being spent on Democrats? Guess who as part of the quid pro quo knows they will have friendly meetings and access to politicians shaping education policies and programs in the State. Guess who probably has more control of the education budget in Long Beach than local officials? If your guess was either the California Teachers Association or the California Federation of Teachers you get a point, if you guessed both you get a bonus.

TALB's attempted takeover of the Long Beach Unified School District in 2006 was a local union with aggressive, and somewhat out of control, leadership following the game plan enacted by its parent union, a game plan that has been active and working in California for many years. By finding and financing local candidates friendly to the unions' wants and needs and guarantees of funding for future campaigns, our teachers up and down the state are giving a few dollars out of every paycheck, every pay period to build a huge political warchest for CTA and CFT. Those funds are then used to influence, perhaps actually write, education policies that are then mandated back to the districts. The school districts then have little to no operating room in their budgets.

And when Sacramento cuts funds for school districts because of its complete failure to honestly budget for education, health care, infrastructure, and public safety, our kids suffer and our future suffer. And when teachers hold huge protests against the cuts I just shake my head, knowing those same teachers holding the signs deriding politicians in Los Angeles or Sacramento, bought and paid for the elections of those in the majority in the Assembly and the Senate--they got what they paid for: short-sighted policies that create imbalance in the budgets and programs that have finally broken.

There is a connection between our vacant 3rd District seat in Long Beach and the lack of funds for schools in San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, Inyo County and Riverside. The connection is the power wielded by the teachers' unions in controlling our budgets and education policies. It is my hope that Long Beach and other districts throughout the state are able to regain control of their budgets, of their programs and allow the local voters and local leadership determine the course of their schools for their children.

Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Chris Steinhauser writes here of the need for local control. If you support his position please let him know and vote "Yes" on November 3rd on the parcel tax for local schools.


1 comment:

Gabriella Holt said...

Hi Dennis, this is a great blog post. I completely agree with you. In order to return to local control and improve local school funding we need to decentralize Sacramento. As you know the challenge of local funding to schools occurred with Serrano v Priest where Sacramento took the opportunity to seize local school funds and centralize the control of disbursement in Sacramento. From that point on the Education Code has tripled in size, where partially or unfunded mandates rule the day. This makes it impossible for any local district to develop educational programs to best suit their population of students and provide the financial resources to support local education.

Once the Legislature returns to part time status, their focus is re-directed to balance the state budget, allocate sufficient resources to cities, counties and special districts that provide the services; rather than spending the majority of their time with unruly regulations and mandates which benefit special interests, help build legislators' campaign coffers and empower Sacramento and leave all of us with swelling deficits. Once the Legislature is part time - the local governing agencies, cities counties and special districts, must gain control of their revenue streams without having the funds filter down from Sacramento.