Note: Information about the results of individual district Bond and Parcel Tax Elections is included on the pull-down report for each district, as appropriate.
Until three decades ago, school districts could ask local voters for an increase in property taxes to support their local schools and pass such measures by a majority vote. Proposition 13 constrained this ability in 1978. Today, school districts have three widely-used options for requesting support from local taxpayers: elections for general obligation bonds, special facility elections, and parcel tax elections. A fourth option, sales tax elections, has only been used successfully in San Francisco.
General Obligation Bond Elections
A 1986 voter-approved amendment to Proposition 13 permitted districts to seek approval for local general obligation bonds for school construction or renovation, to be repaid through property taxes. Until 2001, a two-thirds vote was required for passage.
In the November 2000 election voters approved Proposition 39. It permits the voting threshold for general obligation bonds to be 55% if the school board so chooses. Then the district must abide by several administrative requirements, such as establishing a committee to oversee the use of the funds.
Based on the best available information, of the 748 elections held under this option from 2001 through November 2012, 617 (82%) succeeded. Of the 941 elections under the two-thirds requirement from 1986 through November 2012, 515 (55%) succeeded.
Special Facility Elections
Since 1982, school districts with new residential and commercial development in their boundaries have been able to try to form a special "Mello-Roos Community Facilities District" to build new schools in the area. Two-thirds of the affected property owners who voted had to approve. Of the 63 Mello-Roos elections held since 1983, 30 succeeded. But this option is rarely used now. Only four Mello-Roos elections have been held since 1999, and they have all failed.
In 1998 a new law permitted the formation of School Facility Improvement Districts with a two-thirds vote, which was lowered to 55% (with some requirements) in July 2001. Through November 2012, 4 of 18 elections passed with a two-thirds vote, while 27 of the 33 under the 55% vote requirement passed.
Parcel Tax Elections
Proposition 13 allows districts to levy non-ad valorem taxes if two-thirds of the voters approve. Parcel tax payments are generally a flat fee on each parcel rather than on the assessed value of the property. The proceeds are almost always tied to education programs rather than construction. The ballot proposal prepared by the school district governing board describes the purpose the money will be used for.
From 1983 through November 2012* voters approved 330 parcel taxes in 604 elections; 229 received a majority vote but not the necessary two-thirds approval. (Note: this does not include Gann limit extensions through which a district can extend a previously passed parcel tax with a simple majority vote.)
Differing Local Resources
The need for new or rebuilt schools is documented in School Facilities in California. California's low ranking on expenditures per pupil compared to other states, as well as low staffing ratios, have prompted some calls for higher spending, and the state's current budget challenges have left many districts struggling. Many districts make a strong case for how additional money will benefit students. Sometimes their voters agree, while other times—for varying and complex reasons—they are unwilling to tax themselves for local schools.
The circumstances in a particular school district can be quite different from the one next door. Explosive growth in some areas has created an overwhelming demand for classroom space, as has reducing the number of pupils in K-3 classes. Districts that have unused school buildings may not be near those that are growing or seeking space.
Further, communities differ not only in their willingness to provide additional support, but also in their ability to do so. Districts may levy developer fees, up to a state-approved maximum, on new construction within their boundaries. Some are able to attract contributions from foundations, business partners, or private individuals. With notable exceptions, large urban districts or districts with relatively few businesses and high concentrations of lower income families have more difficulty generating support for schools. This circumstance results in inequities that are outside the scope of the Serrano v. Priest guidelines for more nearly equal treatment of taxpayers and of students.
* In the November 6, 2012 election, five districts in Los Angeles County formed a joint powers agreement to put a single parcel tax measure on the ballot under the name of the Local Classrooms Funding Authority, which passed. The districts are Centinela Valley UHSD, Hawthorne SD, Lawndale SD, Lennox SD, and Wiseburn SD. For the purpose of the calculations in this article, we have counted that as a single election. But in the Bond and Parcel Tax Elections database on Ed-Data, the election will appear for each of the five districts.
For More Information
See Local Sources of Revenue.