Faced with a likely budget shortfall of more than $5 million in each of the next two years, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District is considering asking landowners to weigh in on a parcel tax. An initiative could reach the ballot in either June or November next year.

The district is expected to hire a consultant to analyze how much the parcel tax might generate and whether or not residents are receptive, said Superintendent Mike Matthews. They should make a decision by January, Matthews said.

“Everyone says the schools are the number one reason people move to Manhattan Beach,” Matthews said. “The other thing is that schools increase property values. We need to know what people think about that and a consultant can help us understand those things.”

Matthews said even with contributions from the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, which this year totaled more than $6 million toward district operating costs, the district could face up to 50 teacher layoffs over the next two years as a result of its expected budget shortfall. The last time the district had layoffs was in 2008, Matthews said.

The amount the state gives to MBUSD from property taxes has decreased each year, while district expenses are increasing, according to Matthews.

Manhattan Beach is already the fourth lowest funded district in the state, based on several factors. A funding formula instituted in the 1970s allows the district to receive just 20 percent of local property tax revenues. A local control funding formula implemented in 2013 provides supplemental funding to schools with higher percentages of students on free or reduced lunches, English learners or for any students in foster care, out of which Manhattan Beach has the lowest number of students in L.A. County.

Per pupil funding in Manhattan Beach as a result amounts to just $9,603, the lowest in L.A County. As a whole, California is ranked 44th in the nation for per-pupil funding, according to the Department of Education.

“People assume we are a highly funded school district, but that's not the case at all,” Matthews said.

MBEF presentations

Manhattan Beach Education Foundation Executive Director Farnaz Golshani Flechner has made more than 50 presentations around town about school district funding, hoping to educate the public about the district's budget.

“The idea behind these presentations really is to train our whole community on the basics of school finance and help them to understand why MBEF is necessary and why our district continues to face shortfalls,” Felchner said.

If the district were to enact layoffs over the next few years, Flechner worries that more families might enroll their kids in private school, shifting even more resources away from the district.

“I grew up on the West side where a lot of people have fled from the public school systems,” Flechner said. “Truthfully, I could see a lot of our community, if there were 30-50 terminations as are forecasted, to say, ‘You know what, maybe it's time,’” she said.

In years past, MBUSD has relied on the education foundation to make up for budget deficits. The foundation funds resources such as science teachers and robotics labs. This year, contributions from MBEF amounted to nine percent of the district’s budget, but Flechner warns that arrangement is not sustainable much longer.

“The idea that MBEF can double to be able to fill that gap is pretty unrealistic,” Flechner said.

While the details of a parcel tax are still undecided, already being discussed is a likely senior exemption that excludes property owners over the age of 65 from being assessed. The last time the district proposed a parcel tax—in 2003—it was defeated by voters.

Compared to similar school districts, Manhattan Beach is rare for not having a parcel tax. An analysis by MBEF found parcel taxes in similar districts ranged from $336 per parcel in Santa Monica generating eight percent of its district funding to $2,406 in Piedmont which generates 14 percent of its district budget.

“We are a strategic-looking community, a forward-looking community,” Flechner said. “We shouldn't have to wait before we lay off a bunch of teachers and then pass a parcel tax to bring them back. We should strategically think ahead about how to maintain the quality of our school district.”

State limits funding

The problems for California schools began in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13 that limited property taxes to one percent of a home’s assessed value. The same measure requires that for a parcel tax to pass, it needs a two-thirds majority vote. A year later, the state passed Assembly Bill 8 which further limited property tax allocations to school districts such as Manhattan Beach.

Today most of the revenue for Manhattan Beach schools come from sales, business and income taxes, not property taxes, Flechner said.

“It's just not adequate for all of us,” Matthews said. “When we look at all the other districts we compare ourselves to, we are a rare district in that we have no parcel tax. We are one of the lowest-funded districts in the state and certainly among the highest performing ones ... We feel exploring a parcel tax is the right thing to do.”

Manhattan Beach Mayor David Lesser said the city, too, was considering a possible ballot measure to address paying for improvements to storm drains and other capital improvement projects, but it would likely yield its priorities to the school district.

“In the past, the city has been considerate of the district and tried not to interfere with any ballot measure coming from the district,” Lesser said. “It’s something that needs to be considered. Whether we move forward is yet to be decided by the full council.”

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