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Obtaining Additional Funding Through Citizen Initiative Parcel Tax Measures
California K-12 and community college districts have the power to levy special taxes upon approval by voters. However, districts are often deterred from putting special tax measures, such as a parcel tax, on the ballot because they require a relatively unreachable 2/3 supermajority vote to pass. Recent California case law has clarified that community members may place parcel tax measures on the ballot to provide additional funding for districts through their own citizen initiatives, which only require a simple majority vote to pass.
Local Funding for Districts
California K-12 and community college districts may receive local funding from several sources. For example, districts may generate additional funding by placing bond measures on the ballot, which if passed would tax local property owners based on the assessed value of their property. Bond measures only require 55% of the majority of voters to approve; however, the funds from these bonds may only be used for the repair, construction, or replacement of facilities.
Districts may also seek local funding through a parcel tax. A parcel tax is a qualified special tax that local governments, including cities, counties, special districts, and school districts, may impose on a parcel of property or land. Parcel taxes differ from other property taxes because the tax is based on the existence of a property, not the value of the property. Typically, parcel taxes are a flat fee or charge per square footage of the property or land and usually expire after a set period. Parcel tax funds do not have the same usage restrictions as school bonds. Districts may therefore use parcel tax amounts for purposes as designated by the parcel tax measure, which could include funding for educator salaries or general operating expenses. Parcel tax measures put on the ballot by local governments, however, require a 2/3 supermajority vote for approval.
Passing Parcel Tax Measures through Citizen Initiatives
The California Constitution Article II, Section 8(a) gives California citizens the power to propose laws and taxes, including parcel taxes, for voter approval through citizen initiatives. Citizen initiative measures only need a majority vote to pass, even if the measure seeks to impose parcel taxes to support local governments. California Court findings over the past few years help explain the scope and requirements of citizen initiatives.
In 2017, the California Supreme Court found that citizen initiatives were separate from the actions of local governments, and the category of taxes from citizen initiatives did not fall under the same category of taxes imposed by local governments. Importantly, the Court found that citizen initiatives were not held to the more restrictive standards of local government initiatives.
In 2018, citizens placed a citizen initiative called Proposition C on the ballot to impose a special tax to fund homeless services in the City and County of San Francisco. Proposition C was approved by 61% of voters. The City and County of San Francisco filed an action requesting that the Court validate that Proposition C passed.  In 2020, the Court found that a 2/3 supermajority vote is needed to pass tax measures put on the ballot by local governments. However, the Court distinguished that this supermajority requirement does not apply to citizen initiatives. The Court reiterated that citizen initiatives and local government action are governed by different standards, and citizen initiatives only need a simple majority of the vote to pass.
In 2018, three citizens placed a citizen initiative called Proposition G on the ballot, which sought to fund San Francisco Unified School District educators’ salaries, staffing, professional development, and other related purposes. Proposition G received approval from 60% of the voters. The City and County of San Francisco filed an action with the Court to validate that Proposition G passed. San Francisco Unified School District and the educators’ union were significantly involved in getting Proposition G on the ballot. An attorney for the union drafted Proposition G, and District staff reviewed and made edits to the draft. The three citizens who filed for Proposition G to be on the ballot did not participate in its drafting and did not personally pay any filing fees. Opponents argued that Proposition G was not truly a citizen initiative because of the significant involvement of the union and District and as such should require a supermajority of the vote to pass. However, in 2021 the Court validated Proposition G, finding that it was not subject to the supermajority vote as it was a citizen initiative and was not put on the ballot by a local government. The Court found that there was nothing “inherently sinister” about the union and the District’s support of Proposition G.
How Districts Can Support Citizen Initiatives to Receive Additional Local Funding
The law, as it currently stands, holds that so long as citizens properly follow the initiative process to get a citizen initiative parcel tax measure on the ballot, the measure only requires a simple majority vote to pass. A citizen initiative of a new parcel tax, if passed by a simple majority, could therefore result in additional funding for districts to use for the purposes set forth in the parcel tax measure. Districts interested in assisting community members in proposing a citizen initiative should consult with legal counsel to confirm compliance with local rules and other regulations.
Although local rules may differ, the following are some general considerations about how districts can and cannot support citizen initiatives.
How Districts Can Support Citizen Initiatives:
- Provide strictly informational materials to the public about citizen initiatives through communication channels that the District normally uses to relay information to the public.
- The Board can adopt Resolutions supporting or opposing citizen initiatives at regularly scheduled open meetings where the public may express its views. However, Resolutions cannot urge voters to take any action, and the language of Resolutions must be simple, measured, and informative.
- District employees and Board members may volunteer and engage in political activity as private citizens. Such activity cannot be during work hours, and volunteers cannot hold themselves out as representing the district.
How Districts Cannot Support Citizen Initiatives:
- Use public funds or resources to oppose or support any citizen initiatives.
- Produce or distribute anything that advocates or urges voters to vote for or against an initiative.
- Use staff time, materials, equipment, facilities, or district communication channels to attempt to persuade voters to vote for or against an initiative.
Notably, opponents to these Court findings have indicated their intent to add a ballot measure during the 2024 election cycle to require that all citizen initiatives and local government parcel tax measures must pass by a supermajority of the vote. For now, however, citizen initiative parcel tax measures only require a majority vote to pass.
Liebert Cassidy Whitmore’s Business and Facilities practice group has invaluable expertise in public education law and can advise districts interested in receiving parcel tax funding through the appropriate and legally compliant processes.
 California Cannabis Coalition v. the City of Upland (2017) 3 Cal.5th 924.
 City and County of San Francisco v. All Persons Interested in Matter of Proposition C (2020) 51 Cal.App.5th 703.
 City and County of San Francisco v. All Persons Interested in the Matter of Proposition G (2021) 66 Cal.App.5th 1058.