Tax Extensions Crucial for Schools

From the Long Beach Press-Telegram

By Christopher J. Steinhauser

After the earth shook in 1933, destroying many of Long Beach’s recently built schools, residents here faced a double problem.  At a time when many homes and businesses had been leveled by the same quake, the people of Long Beach needed to build new schools even as they paid off the debt for school structures that no longer existed.

Compounding the problem were the lingering effects of the stock market crash of 1929, when personal savings evaporated, banks closed, and unemployment mounted.

Under these conditions, voters made their “big decision,” as it was called at the time.  By a vote of 3 to 1, they approved a $4.9 million bond issue to rebuild schools.

As a result, the school district began a successful recovery, and thanks to the fortunate timing of the quake at 5:55 p.m., “though the physical shell of a school system had received a mortal blow, the living heart of it had been spared – its children,” according to the 1960 book, A History of the Long Beach Unified School District.

Today, we face a disaster of a different magnitude, though this time the destruction is entirely preventable.  The solution does not even require raising taxes beyond current levels.  But unless we somehow extend state taxes that are set to expire, we could lose more than $760 per student next year, which is nothing short of a fiscal earthquake.  We’ve already cut more than $200 million here over the past three years.  The excellence of Long Beach schools, long recognized by this newspaper and by media on the national and international scenes, will not survive this knockout blow.

Already we’ve laid off and furloughed hundreds of teachers and support staff, with more sacrifices on the horizon.  Class sizes are swelling.  Our outdoor science camp that was started in 1949 is gone.  High school requirements for computer literacy and health?  Gone.  Summer school?  Gone.  Middle school sports?  Gone, unless a benefactor provides $300,000 in private funding.  Maintenance and other central operations have been cut to the bone.  At our central office, many departments resemble ghost towns of empty cubicles.

We are not alone.  School districts statewide continue to face huge cuts.  More than 30,000 California educators and 10,000 other public school employees have been laid off over the past three years. 

At this rate, our academic programs and services will continue to suffer deep cuts indefinitely.  By the time today’s elementary school children reach high school, they may find that we have eliminated programs such as sports, band and the wide array of college preparatory classes and workforce training courses now offered.  Remember, we’re talking about a school system where one high school sends more athletes to the NFL than any other high school in the nation, where music programs have been named among America’s best by the GRAMMY Foundation, where 74 percent of graduates go to college, and where high school seniors earned $51 million in scholarships last year.

The result of such continued cuts will be plummeting property values citywide, persistent unemployment, increased crime and the type of tragic, urban decay that we’ve witnessed in Detroit and other major cities whose public school systems were neglected for too long.

Even during some of its darkest hours, Long Beach wisely placed a premium on public education.  The 1933 school bond vote was one of many instances in which voters here taxed themselves in support of students.  It all started with a successful $6,000 bond in 1885 when Long Beach founders like John Bixby served on the school board.  It continued in 1924, when residents voted 20 to 1 in favor of another $4.9 million for schools.

Years from now, when Long Beach residents turn the pages of history, what will they think of us?  While our schools still enjoy strong support from the community, including frequent pats on the back from opinion leaders, our accolades are not paying the bills.

Everyone who cares about children in our service areas of Long Beach, Lakewood, Signal Hill and on Catalina Island – and who enjoys the high quality of life that these communities have to offer – must collectively hold state legislators responsible for stabilizing school funding.  If it takes pension reform and other compromise, fine.  In fact, let’s allow voters a say on that, too.

Our earthquake is now.  Does Long Beach still have what it takes to rally around one of the nation’s best school systems?

As it was 78 years ago, we mustn’t take too long to decide.  Awaiting our answer is that same living heart of our school system – our children.

Christopher J. Steinhauser is superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District.