One of the many things I’ve put off commenting on is the failure of the West Contra Costa USD parcel tax “renewal,” Measure G, on August 28th. This was a mail-in ballot whose campaigning season was mostly over the summer when school was not in session. The current parcel tax has two more years to go, but it was decided (note the vague passive tense) to go for it now.

Why did it fail? Who knows. When people talk about this, I am reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. I’m one of those blind men.

The driving force behind the parcel tax was the For the Children of West County “faction” fueled by Charles Ramsey’s ability to bring in a lot of money from construction interests. I worked on the parcel tax campaign as a PTA VP (the Bayside Council of PTAs endorsed the parcel tax) and as the Webmaster for the campaign Web site. So, I was in position to make a lot of observations despite being somewhat removed from the center of things.

How It Was Supposed to Pass

The basic theory behind this parcel tax campaign was that the “no” vote was sleeping and that by targeting the “yes” vote and just getting them to vote without disturbing the sleeping “no” vote everything would be fine. In other words, the “no” vote is soft and the “yes” vote is hard. As a blind man, my take on the elephant is that the “yes” vote is soft and the “no” vote is hard.

Results

Here are the results by city for the failed Measure G and the previously successful Measure B parcel tax measure (2004):

Measure B (2004) Measure G (2007)
Yes No Yes No Yes Change No Change
ALL 32859 13696 14520 12172 -56% -11%
Unincorporated 6537 2804 3005 2372 -54% -15%
El Cerrito 6158 1995 3310 1856 -46% -7%
Hercules 2362 1748 895 1534 -62% -12%
Pinole 3376 1997 1351 1738 -60% -13%
Richmond 12280 4323 5147 3990 -58% -8%
San Pablo 2150 830 790 682 -63% -18%

Pretty consistently the “yes” vote falls off by 50-60% from one election to the next, while the “no” vote just holds steady, without increasing, losing only about 10% across the board.

The Lack of a Well-Publicized General Crisis

So, what kept the soft “yes” vote home. The overarching reason to this blind man was the lack of a sense of a general crisis in funding for education. In 2004, the State education funding crisis was constantly in all of the news outlets. This included extreme measures like mid-year budget cuts. In contrast, in recent years, funding for education from the State has steadily increased. All the doom-and-gloom reporting about education funding has been significantly reduced in the media. Yes, there has been a continuing controversy about what is the “correct” amount to fund education, but this is a more abstract discussion.

The Role of the Teachers Union

In addition to this, there was the uncertainty produced by the teachers’ union (UTR) and its bizarre maneuvering over the parcel tax. The UTR was involved in salary reopener negotiations with the district during the whole parcel tax campaign. The UTR was not happy with the For the Children of West County people (who hold a 3-2 majority on the Board). The UTR could have simply done nothing about the parcel tax and made there point more subtly. But, no. Instead the UTR leadership had to be clever and introduce some weird resolution that the UTR would formally NOT support the parcel tax, but it wasn’t against the parcel tax. Whatever realpolitik point the UTR was aiming at in doing this was buried within a mound of confusion. Most “no” voters could care less what the UTR does, but for “yes” voters — if you’re scratching your head, you’re not voting.

When Is a Renewal Not a Renewal

Finally, the parcel tax itself was confusing. It was presented as a “renewal” with some kind of “inflation” adjustment. But, this inflation adjustment was a whopping 50% increase. And, the parcel tax actually included an increased scope of funding purposes. More head scratching and less voting by those who would be sympathetic to supporting education.

What Next for the For the Children of West County

The reaction of the For the Children people has been a big shrug. The dog ate the parcel tax. The dog assumes various guises like the subprime mortgage crisis or the dastardly state and federal authorities (not local authorities) or simply the fact that people “just don’t get it.” Along with explaining how the dog ate the parcel tax, the focus for the For the Children is making the cuts to show people how they will suffer from not passing the parcel tax. Any work on another parcel tax campaign will have to be shouldered by others.

What Next for the UTR

This brings us to the UTR. Now that the UTR leadership has not helped not not pass the parcel tax, they stand ready to campaign for their own parcel tax. This will be different because it will be a community-based campaign and the parcel tax will be based on appealing to uplifting values and not just supporting existing programs. We’ll see, I guess.