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California School District Parcel Tax Elections

April, 2011

Parcel tax elections raise revenues through imposing an additional tax based on the characteristics of a parcel of land. The taxes are a form of property tax, which must be paid by the owners of parcels of real estate. However, unlike standard property taxes, which are based on the value of the property, a parcel tax is an assessment based on the characteristics of the parcel. School districts have created assessments that range from flat amounts per parcel to assessments based on parcel lot square footage or building square foot. Some school districts have assessed residential parcels using one method and non-residential using another method.

School districts can levy this type of non-ad valorem tax if a supremajority of two-thirds of the voters approve. (A non-ad valorem tax is one that is not based on the value of the property that is being taxed.) California is the only state that allows parcel taxes as a method of funding schools.

Origins of the Parcel Tax

In the 1970s the responsibility of financing public schools moved from the local level to the State based on the Serrano v Priest court decision. In 1978 California passed Prop 13 which essentially turned property taxes into a state tax. As a consequence, school districts lost control of its largest source of discretionary income. Section 4 of Prop 13 allowed local agencies like school districts to levy parcel taxes subject to the approval of two-thirds of the voters. The first parcel tax was enacted in 1983. In 2013, EdSource published a comprehensive review of school parcel taxes.

Recap of Parcel Tax Elections

1983 to 1989 - 31 of 80 (39%) parcel tax elections were successful

1990 to 1999 - 88 of 155 (57%) parcel tax elections were successful

2000 to 2009 - 141 of 242 (58%) parcel tax elections were successful

2010 - 17 of 39 (44%) parcel tax elections were successful

2011 - 18 of 27  (67%) parcel tax elections were successful

2012 - 27 of 41 (66%) parcel tax elections were successful

Total to date, 322 successful parcel tax elections out of 584 elections.

Total Success rate is 55%. However location makes a difference.

Location of Parcel Tax Elections through 2010

31 of 59 California counties have conducted at least parcel tax since 1983. Of the 575+ elections held since 1983,  70% of them were held in six northern California counties: Santa Clara (14.7%), Marin (13.6%), San Mateo (11.4%), Sonoma (10.1%), Alameda (9.7%) and Contra Costa (9.5%). Only Los Angeles county (10.7%) in southern California had more than 3% of the total number of parcel tax elections. Of the 320+ successful elections, over half took place in just three counties: Marin,  San Mateo and Alameda .


When the most active counties trying parcel taxes, it is not surprising to see these counties have voters with higher level of educational attainment of an Associate Degree or higher. The state average is 38%.  


School District Breakdown through 2010

Of the 575+ elections held since 1983 approximately 195 school districts have attempted to pass a parcel tax. Of the 320 successful elections they represent only 102 school districts. As of March, 2011, approximately 90 parcel taxes are being collected.

Senator Joe Simitian reintroduced a bill SCA5 School District Parcel Tax to lower the voter threshold from 66.7% to 55%. The bill was originally introduced in 2009. If the voter threshold was 55% instead of 66.7% over 160 of the 230 failed parcel tax measures would have passed.

Parcel taxes across generate an average of $500 per student and makeup an average  5.5% of a total school district budget. 



Parcel Tax Structure

Approximately 55% of  parcel tax elections were for a requested duration of 4 or 5 years. Less than one percent of parcel tax elections did not have a sunset date.  Over 95% of the ballot measures requested a fixed amount per parcel. A handful of school districts have parcel taxes based on square footage of either the building or the parcel.

Parcel Tax Equity

There are individuals who believe parcel taxes become a way to allow more affluent and privileged districts to secure the conditions for their district that cannot be provided to the state as a whole, given the current level of taxation. While it is true a majority of school districts who have a passed a parcel tax are more affluent, there are a number of school districts who have passed a parcel tax with student population above the State average of 55% Free/Reduced Meals.


District Free/Reduced Meals %
Ravenswood Elementary 92.3%
Alum Rock Union Elementary 82.2%
Franklin-McKinley Elementary 78.9%
Pittsburg Unified 78.0%
Emery 74.9%
Mt Pleasant Elementary 73.3%
West Contra Costa Unified 65.7%
Bayshore Elementary 64.4%
San Francisco Unified 56.8%
Mammoth Unified 55.4%
Shoreline Unified 55.3%



If you have any additional questions you can contact me at mike.mcmahon@yahoo.com.  My research database contains the results from over 500 elections since 1983.



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Last modified: April, 2011

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