As I turned the corner from Fair Oaks Avenue on to Colorado Boulevard, I saw him.
By Jennifer Hall Lee
He was on the ground, sleeping on his side with his arm tucked under his head as if it were a pillow. The night air was cool. A few steps from his bare feet were restaurant diners seated at outdoor tables. The scene was arresting, prompting me to think about our growing problem of homelessness and income inequality.
Broadly speaking, homelessness is the state of not being able to have a residence, and income inequality is the gap between income earners. The income gap in the United States has been expanding for several decades and the middle ground is shrinking. When I am in conversation about these problems, we all describe an urgency for a solution that we do not yet have.
I have written before about my volunteerism as chair of the annual fund in my local public junior high school. That experience gives a unique perspective on the income inequality issues we face today.
Let’s look at a few of the current annual fund goals for schools in the Pasadena area.
- $75,000 is the annual fund goal for Eliot Arts Magnet Academy (a PUSD school).
- $500,000 is the annual fund goal for an Altadena charter school.
- $4.3 million is the annual fund goal for a Pasadena private school.
These annual fund numbers reflect the income levels of parents because when you set a goal for an annual fund you must reasonably expect that the goal can be reached. Annual funds in public schools derive monies primarily through parents and alumni.
The extreme range of income levels reflected in annual fund goals plays out in parcel taxes, too. A parcel tax is a special tax in California; it can be placed on the ballot by school districts in order to raise revenue.
In 2014, voters in La Canada Flintridge overwhelmingly approved an extension to its parcel tax and an increase from $120 per parcel to $450 per parcel. In December 2019, the LCUSD Board approved placing an indefinite extension of that tax on the March 2020 ballot. Each year the LCUSD receives about $2.6 million from the parcel tax.
In 2018, the South Pasadena Unified School District voted to renew its parcel tax at the higher rate of $386 per parcel and to extend it for seven years. In the 2018/2019 academic year, SPUSD received $2,344,444 from the parcel tax.
In 2010, PUSD had a parcel tax on the ballot called Measure CC; the proposed parcel tax would have assessed $120 on each parcel in the PUSD120. It failed. What does PUSD receive in parcel taxes? Nothing.
The PUSD is not alone. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently placed a parcel tax on the 2019 ballot and it too was rejected. Interestingly, the student population of LAUSD, like PUSD. is majority low income.
But you might say: Doesn’t PUSD receive state tax money? Yes, but the State of California ranks very low in per-pupil funding despite the fact that it has the largest economy in the nation.
Another factor reflects disparity in the PUSD area: enrollment.
PUSD captures only about 55% of children in the area, which is probably one reason why it is hard for PUSD to pass a parcel tax. Those who have opted out of PUSD have less of a commitment to funding PUSD. Why is this significant? Our public schools are an important working part of our democracy. Abandoning our democratic institutions weakens them; without participation, those institutions eventually will be dismantled.
Public schools were created so that the people would have an equal opportunity to attend a tax funded school in order to learn academics and learn from one another. When we are all in it together, we all have an equal stake in the school.
It is true that a majority of students in PUSD are from low-income families, but not all. In any case, we can all participate in our public schools through enrollment, volunteerism and financial giving. Such participation gives us, the people, a very good chance of balancing out the income inequality within our public schools and our overall community.
The man sleeping on the sidewalk so uncomfortably close to the restaurant diners inspired me to write this piece because I stood in the physical space between them, between wealth and poverty.
Jennifer Hall Lee is the Chairperson for both the Eliot Arts Annual Fund and the Altadena Town Council Education Committee. She lives in Altadena and is a PUSD parent.
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