Anaheim Council Narrowly Approves School Funding

At a meeting that stretched into the wee hours Wednesday morning, the Anaheim City Council barely mustered enough votes to approve a line item in next fiscal year’s budget that would commit a yet-to-be specified amount of funds for the city’s schools.

The approval came at the request of the Anaheim Union High School District, which last month asked the city to provide funding for all schools in the city. District officials say they are facing huge funding shortfalls for schools’ aging infrastructure, despite voters approving a $249 million bond measure last November to finance such improvements.

After a long debate that was both confused and tense, council members voted 3-2 to reserve funding for schools in the next budget cycle, but limited it only to facilities that could be open for both students and the general public, such as libraries and ball fields.

Mayor Tom Tait, along with council members James Vanderbilt and Jordan Brandman, voted for creating the budget line item. Council members Kris Murray and Lucille Kring voted against it.

Like so many other issues that often split the community and city leaders, the debate boiled down to how the city prioritizes spending.

In pushing for the funding, Tait argued that the city hands blank check to tourism businesses and Disneyland while everyday residents are shortchanged on funding for services.

Tait listed recent deals like a $200 million convention center expansion, a controversial $158 million room-tax subsidy for a luxury hotel developer, a $319 million streetcar project and a 45-year ticket tax shield for Disneyland. He said the school district’s request amounted to asking for a seat at the table when city officials decide to award such large subsidies.

“I think the school district is saying in response, how about we invest in our kids?” Tait said.

Murray, meanwhile, argued that creating the budget line item without any specific definition or amount could threaten an unknown amount of funding for core city services, like police and fire protection, or libraries and parks.

“You’re either robbing Peter to pay Paul, or you’re setting up a foundation to raise taxes,” Murray said.

Murray also questioned the timing of the proposal, saying that it should be brought forward during the city’s annual budget approval. And she accused supporters of the proposal of trying to score political points. “I don’t think our kids should be used as political footballs,” she said.

Kring brought a copy of her property tax bill with her to the meeting and listed the various bonds taxpayers are supporting to assist the schools and said taxpayers would be “appalled” if they knew the school district was asking for money from the city in addition to the bonds.

“I don’t know why with all the money taxpayers are giving you cannot live within your budget,” Kring said.

Tait said the money could be found by taking it from projects with bloated and unnecessary funding. He specifically pointed to $7.9 million allocated for renovations at the Anaheim Tennis Center, a project critics say primarily benefits the center’s private for-profit operator.

He also said that council members didn’t have such concerns about safeguarding taxpayer money when politically connected business people, like hotelier Bill O’Connell, came to the city asking for a handout.

“That money was found,” he said.

Several supporters of the funding, including teachers, students and school district officials, also spoke in favor of the proposal during public comments.

“I’d like to ask what is wrong with investing in our schools and your youth?” said Anaheim Union High School District board member Al Jabbar.

In a presentation to the council, city staff said the city already spends millions supporting the 62 schools and 60,000 students within the city, including over $19 million for capital projects like crosswalks and traffic signals, and over $5 million on other support like after-school programs and crossing guards.

Deputy City Manager Greg Garcia also said that Anaheim Union High School District officials had not reached out to the city regarding what specifically district officials were looking for with the budget line item.

Anaheim wouldn’t be the only city in the county to directly allocate funding for schools. Irvine for years has provided millions of dollars annually to a fund that gives the money to schools. And in 2012, Irvine voters approved transferring $4 million in city funds annually to schools.

Murray claimed that Anaheim’s funding of schools already tops Irvine, and suggested starting off a partnership discussion with the district by looking at joint use agreements that could allow residents to use school parks and fields after school hours and students to use city parks. Santa Ana has used this strategy to expand open space in park-poor neighborhoods.

As they came closer to a vote, there was confusion over whether a proposal by Vanderbilt would be limited to only such joint use agreements. After struggling for a coherent definition, council members agreed the budget line item would be for any spending on facilities that would benefit both students and the general public.

Council members also separately approved a resolution that, among other things, supports parents’ ability to convert low-performing schools to charter schools, but only after Vanderbilt suggested removing language from the resolution that, among other things, disparaged some Anaheim schools as “among the worst” in Orange County.

In supporting the resolution, Kring said that education should be like an ice cream shop – it’s all about the options.

“There should be choices in education. Just like there’s choices at Baskin-Robbins,” Kring said.

The vote to approve the charter schools resolution was also 3-2, with Tait and Brandman voting no. Kring, Murray and Vanderbilt voted for the resolution.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek