Nearly all school parcel taxes pass, mixed results for school bonds in March election

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The March 5 primary proved to be a good day for passing school parcel taxes, but not so good for school construction bonds.

With fewer than 1% of votes statewide remaining to be counted, it appears likely voters in 10 of 11 districts approved parcel taxes. Although a small sample size, the 91% passage rate beats the historic 65% pass rate for primary elections, according to Michael Coleman, who publishes election results at (see note below).  The sole defeat was the Petaluma Joint Union High School District’s 8-year proposed tax at $89 per parcel.

Voters in 24 of 40 school districts passed school facilities bonds: 60% compared with the historic 73% primary election approval rate. And the winners include two tiny school districts in Sonoma County that looked like they would be defeated on Election Day but picked up enough mail-in or provisional votes to eke out a win.

It takes a 55% majority vote to pass a bond, and in Fort Ross School District, two votes made the difference for the $2.1 million bond; the 158 to 126 vote was 55.6% to 44.3%.  Supporters for the $13 million bond in the Harmony Union School District picked up six percentage points since Election Day to end with 56.3% of the vote.

School districts can choose the March primary or November general election for a parcel tax or school bond. Most traditionally choose November, when more voters cast votes. But others gamble on the primary election, when there’s less competition, with fewer state bond issues and many initiatives competing for dollars on the ballot.

The last proposal for a state school construction bond, which would have provided matching funding for local school bonds, was also on the statewide primary ballot in March 2020, and it lost – the first in decades to lose.  But it coincided with the emergence of the Covid pandemic, adding an edge of anxiety for voters.  It also had the misfortune of coincidentally being designated Proposition 13, which likely caused confusion among voters with the 1978 anti-tax initiative that substantially restricted property tax increases and required a two-thirds voter majority to pass new taxes, including parcel taxes. (Voters lowered that threshold for school facilities bonds to 55% with Prop. 39 in 2000.)

The Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s aides are negotiating whether to place a school facilities bond proposal on the November ballot. With student enrollment declining statewide, most of the money would be designated for renovations and repairs, not new construction.

Brianna Garcia, vice president of School Services of California, a school consulting company, doubted that the lower-than-average passage rate for bonds would predict the outcome in November for local and state bond proposals. Many more districts will place bonds before voters, and the passage rate will revert to the norm for November elections, which is over 80%, she said.

While agreeing with Garcia, Eric Bonniksen, superintendent of Placerville Elementary School District in El Dorado County, cautioned that people struggling financially “are looking at every avenue to fit within their budgets, including school bonds.”  A drop in interest rates, even if not large, which economists are forecasting, “may make people feel better about the economic outlook,” he said

Voters, Bonniksen said, want to see something visible, like remodeling a building, reconstructing a field or painting a school. “If a bond only fixes sewer and electrical lines, they will question, ‘What did you do for this money?’” he said.

Voters passed about $3 billion worth of projects, not including interest, generally paid over 30 years at rates of $15 per $100,000 of assessed property value in Sunnyvale to $60 per $100,000 of assessed property value in Benicia, Hayward, Culver City and Desert Sands unified districts. The largest bonds approved are for $675 million in Desert Sands, $550 million in Hayward, and $358 million in Culver City.

The largest bond that failed was for $517 million in Tamalpais Union High School District in Marin County; as of March 22, it was 1.25 percentage points shy of 55%. Opponents, led by the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, questioned the scale of the work and said the money would disproportionately go to Tamalpais High, with not enough to two other high schools. The district last approved a construction bond two decades ago.

Parcel taxes

Only about one in eight school districts, primarily in the Bay Area and districts with wealthier families in the Los Angeles area, have passed one. Parcel taxes are one of the few sources of funding for districts to supplement state or local funding. Because Prop. 13 bans tax increases based on a property’s value, parcel taxes must be a uniform amount per property, regardless of whether it’s a cottage, a 10-bedroom house, or an apartment building.

Courts have ruled, however, that parcel taxes can be assessed by the square footage,  and three of the 11 on the ballot (54 cents per sq. ft per year in Berkeley Unified, 55 cents in Albany Unified, and 58.5 cents in Alameda) passed. School boards in high-cost Bay Area districts argue that parcel taxes are critical because state funding under the Local Control Funding Formula doesn’t take regional costs into consideration.

The approved parcel taxes range from $75 per year for eight years in Martinez Unified to a $768 per year extension of an existing parcel tax, with an annual cost of living adjustment, in Davis Joint Unified.

Note: Updated data indicated that parcel taxes in Manhattan Beach Unified and Petaluma City Elementary School District, along with bond proposals in Fort Ross and Harmony Union school districts picked up enough support to pass.

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