Are school parcel taxes social status symbols?

Fast Times at Ridgemont High posterMay 7, 2013

By Wayne Lusvardi

Question: Are working-class communities smarter than wealthier school districts by not putting increased school parcel taxes on local election ballots?

This is not the conclusion suggested in a new study released May 2013 by EdSource, a non-profit education research center in Oakland.  The study, “Raising Revenues Locally: Parcel Taxes in California School Districts 1983-2012,” suggests that lower-income school districts should catch up with the 12 percent of school districts that recently have passed local school parcel taxes.

Most of the school districts that have passed such taxes, however, have been in super-wealthy residential enclaves in Northern California.  A parcel tax, which is assessed on each individual parcel of property regardless of size, is placed on top of state funded school revenues and local property taxes.

But are school parcel taxes mostly a status symbol?  Or do they bring about better academic performance and higher property values in working class neighborhoods?

The EdSource study found that school parcel taxes actually pay for the provision of luxury public school services that are of no help to less advantaged areas, except perhaps but to provide more jobs to cultural elites and unions.

Local school districts in less wealthy areas want to bring in more outside state revenues, rather than imposing more taxes on already struggling families. Education policy leaders need to understand that, in working class families, many teenage children need to take jobs and don’t have time for the extracurricular activities funded by the parcel taxes.

Nor do many working-class parents have the time and an extra car to transport their children to sports, band practice or other activities.  Working-class students and their parents also are less likely to want more school counseling, high school course electives, diversity curriculum consultants, assistant coaches and librarians, and more arts and music classes.

But do low-income areas get more “bang for their education buck” if they raise their local taxes to provide more school funding?

A comparison of a wealthy and less wealthy school districts

Below is a table excerpted from the EdSource study that shows the top five school districts in relying on school parcel taxes in California. These five school districts generate from 24 to 31 percent of their revenues from local parcel taxes.

Note how the Berkeley Unified School District raises about $29 million from local parcel taxes, on top of already existing property taxes that also pay for schools. Parcel taxes make up 25 percent of Berkeley’s total school district revenues.

Parcel Tax as Share of Districts’ Revenues: Top Five School Districts, 2011-2012

Parcel Tax Revenue
District County ADA Total District Revenue Total Parcel Tax Revenue Per ADA Share of Total Revenue
Piedmont City Unified Alameda 2,460 $30,510,668 $9,547,968 $3,881 31%
Kentfield Elementary Marin 1,135 $12,636,301 $3,294,624 $2,902 26%
Berkeley Unified Alameda 8,681 $117,174,768 $29,550,524 $3,404 25%
Emery Unified Alameda 666 $10,471,492 $2,580,709 $4,876 25%
Mill Valley Elementary Marin 2,825 $29,957,994 $7,107,187 $2,516 24%
ADA = average daily attendance

Data: 2011-12 SACS unaudited actual data file, California Dept. of Education

Next is a table constructed by this author from a computer program supplied by the California Department of Education that provides an automatic comparison of school districts of similar size.  

The common factor here is the Berkeley Unified School District. It’s in the chart above, and in the chart below.

Here’s what to note below: BUSD provides about 31 percent higher revenues per student than the Milipitas and King Canyon Unified School Districts.  Most of Berkeley’s higher revenue comes from parcel taxes.

Comparable School Districts per California Dept. of Education

School District Total Enrollment/Revenue per studentADA Percent:English Learners /Largest Ethnic Group Passed APITest ?


Average Teacher’s Salary (BA)/Average Class Size Average Home Value(Zillow) School Parcel Tax
Berkeley Unified  9,545 / $12,985  13.6% / 63.1% White No  $60,489


$749,400 YES
Milipitas Unified 9,949 / $7,476  26.4% / 92.0% Asian No $77,173


$562,300 YES
Kings Cyn. Unified 9,838 / $9,151  32.4% / 88.2% Hispanic No $58,321


$146,400 NO
All State School Districts 5,900 / $8,617  22.3% / 73.1% Hispanic No $66,642


$313,000 88% NO

So, what does the Berkeley Unified School District get for about 30 percent greater public school revenues from parcel taxes? And for having lowest average class size: 18.1 students per class? Its achievement on Academic Performance Index test was no better than schools with a lot less money: all did not achieve at the mandated levels.


On the second chart, compare BUSD’s with the less-wealthy Kings Canyon Unified School District. It has mostly minority students, lower average teachers’ salaries, a higher average class size and about 26 percent lower revenues per student than BUSD. But Kings Canyon got just as much educational “bang for their tax buck” as Berkeley; albeit they also did not achieve high enough on the API.

What Berkeley apparently did get, however, is enhanced property values as shown in the above table. Berkeley’s average property value of $749,400 was five times the $146,400 of Kings Canyon.

The above comparison of schools is representative of nearly all school districts in the state. The data was not cherry picked by this writer to slant the results.

In California, wealthier school districts often provide luxury educational services funded by school parcel taxes. Less wealthy public school districts would get no guarantee of greater academic performance by raising parcel taxes to fund mainly luxury educational services and jobs mostly for the benefit of cultural elites and unions.

The same trend would hold true for Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed policy to shift a greater proportion of public school funding to more disadvantaged schools by reducing the budget allocation to suburban schools.

This only would lead to wealthier suburban schools passing even higher parcel taxes to back-fill the state school funding they lost.  But none of this cost shifting and tax shifting would have much, if any, benefit on educational outcomes. It might lower property values, and thus property taxes, in wealthier school districts, unless they backfilled the lost revenues with parcel taxes.

Returning to the question at the start of this article: Are less wealthy school districts smarter to not impose school parcel taxes on their communities?  Apparently so.

Tags assigned to this article:
Edsourceparcel taxWayne LusvardiBerkeley

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