In a matter of nine days, a motivated group of Manhattan Beach parents and local activists gathered more than 4,100 signatures with the goal of putting a parcel tax planned to benefit local schools on the ballot. Should all go according to plan, the citizen-led initiative would go onto local ballots during the state's planned June primary election.
If the initiative passes, it would levy a tax of $1,095 per parcel, per year, for 12 years, with exemptions for senior citizens and certain recipients of Social Security benefits. The tax would provide approximately $12 million per year to the Manhattan Beach Unified School District's coffers.
"Our community stepped up in a big way. Everyone raised hands, people took clipboards, everyone asked everyone we knew," said Wysh Weinstein, a co-chair of MB Citizens for Schools, the group supporting the initiative.
Weinstein credited Super Bowl weekend's friendly weather and warm feelings, where the hometown Los Angeles Rams took on the Cincinnati Bengals down the road in Inglewood. They gathered more than 2,500 signatures by one person's count during their final weekend push, centered in downtown Manhattan Beach.
But the group's messaging might have struck its own chord with residents. In a well-moneyed city where it's hard to imagine any of its residents lacking, MBUSD receives the second-lowest amount of state and federal per-pupil funding in the state of California: approximately $10,500 per student, according to the Manhattan Beach Educational Foundation.
A glance at ed-data.org, which collects data from school districts statewide, shows that MBUSD spent about $13,981 per student in 2019-2020 thanks, in large part, to grants and donations from organizations like MBEF. Per its latest annual report, the ed foundation promised $5.3 million in grants to MBUSD. Forty-three percent of that money—$2.257 million—is earmarked for class size reduction across the district, effectively paying a handful of teacher salaries at grades 4 and up throughout MBUSD.
Should this parcel tax make it to the ballot, it would be the second parcel tax before Manhattan Beach residents in the last four years. In 2018, voters passed Measure MB, which levied a $225-per-parcel tax for six years. That measure was proposed by the school district and thus required two-thirds approval of residents. Although the Measure MB tax is due to expire in 2024, the school district will discuss options for a possible extension at its Feb. 16 meeting.
Should the proposed citizen-led initiative make the ballot, it would face a lower bar for approval: a simple majority of yes votes would pass the new tax law.
Manhattan Beach schools are as high-achieving as the city's home values. The district is often ranked in the top 1% of districts across the country, as is its Mira Costa High School.
But funding models for the school district are complicated by Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that placed limits on property taxes across the state. Before Prop. 13's passage, districts were largely funded by property taxes. In the early and mid-1970s, in response to challenges to the property tax funding system, the California Legislature passed a handful of bills that redistributed state aid among districts based on differences in district property tax revenues.
When Prop. 13 passed, property tax rates were limited to 1% of assessed value, increasing by a maximum of 2% per year or when a property changes ownership. In Manhattan Beach, 20% of a taxpayer's property tax bill is earmarked for education.
Angie Smith, Weinstein's co-chair at MB Citizens of Schools, is a former teacher who taught at schools in six different states, including California.
"When I started, I kept wondering, why are they asking me for PTA and all of these funds? And then I realized how underfunded we are. It's a structural financial problem that cannot be fixed without a parcel tax," Smith said.
On Monday, the 4,104 signatures collected by MB Citizens for Schools were submitted to the city of Manhattan Beach; if deemed acceptable by the city, the initiative signatures will then go to the Los Angeles County Clerk's office for verification.