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An Unfortunate Education in Prop 13

As if we needed another story about Prop 13's unintended impacts on education, here's a new twist. 

The Archer School for Girls inhabits a covetable property – a resplendent 1930s Spanish Revival complex designed by William Mooser – on one of the most unenviable corners in the free world. It's on Sunset Boulevard, about a mile west of the 405 freeway, in Brentwood. It’s the bottleneck through which every single commuter coming from Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades crams in an effort to get to the Valley or wherever. When the evening rush hour gets going (around 3pm) you're lucky if it takes you a half-hour to drive that mile.

Needless to say, the traffic was there long before the school, which moved to that campus in 1999. But, if you ask some people, the traffic is the fault of Archer. They'll say that plenty of other things are the school's fault too. 

Some background: When Archer acquired the property and applied for its conditional use permit, neighbors raised holy hell. They feared every manner of impact, from noise, to errant soccer balls, to unsightly renovations, to unspecified hooliganism. Despite the arguable importance of educating the city's 600,000 or so school-age children, there's no such thing as "school zoning" in LA. So, the school is, like all other private schools, governed by a conditional use permit. Archer's conditions would make even the most vulturous attorney blush. It has something like 85 restrictions, and most of them are unheard-of for a school. If Archer was a bar, it’d be forced to serve beer out of thimbles.

(Disclosure: I taught at Archer in the early 2000s.)

Essentially none of the neighbors' fears has come to pass. The girls haven't burned down the neighborhood. Traffic has gotten worse, but it's done so very much of its own accord. Even so, now that Archer is proposing an expansion of its campus – without, mind you, an increase in enrollment  – the forces of neighborhood concern are at it again. Sure, more cars would make traffic worse. But there's worse and then there's imperceptibly worse. 

Archer wants all sorts of things that schools tend to want: a performing arts complex, a gym, more evening events, and a parking structure. I don't have a position on exactly what conditions Archer should or shouldn't agree to. That's for the school and the neighbors to work out.

I am, however, interested in how we got into this mess in the first place. And here's where it gets ironic. 

Many of the homeowners in Brentwood who are anxious about Archer have been there quite a while. That means, they may have voted on Prop 13. If they owned homes at the time, they probably voted for Prop 13. (Who in their right, self-interested mind wouldn't have?) And it certainly means that they've benefited from Prop 13. A home that was worth $100,000 north of Sunset in 1978 might be worth north of $5 million today. And that's just for the lot. 

(Check out this map of property taxes in LA County and zoom in on Sunset and the 405. You’ll see plenty of blue lots, indicating tax rates of less than $2 per square foot. Then ask yourself if any of those properties should be taxed at that rate when many others are above $10.)

The rest of the story is no secret: Howard Jarvis goes bonkers, Prop 13 passes, local revenues dry up, the state back-fills (sort of), and big urban school districts, like LAUSD, get clobbered while suburban school districts thrive on revenues from new construction and pro-education residents. There is no greater tragedy in modern California than the demise of our urban schools.

The well-off families of Los Angeles, many of whom also probably voted for Prop 13, have responded by supporting private schools at up to $30,000 or so per student per year. It's no coincidence that many of LA's private schools didn't exist before 1978. Mind you, there's a public high school about two miles south of Archer. Most Archer students would probably go there (or to their respective neighborhood schools) if their parents were comfortable with the education there. But, who can blame them? 

The neighbors won’t know it, because Prop 13 is surely a distant memory for many of them, but they want to have it both ways. They get the estimable tax benefits of Prop 13. But they also don't want to be impacted in the slightest by an institution that owes its very existence to Prop 13 – and that, aside from traffic impacts, costs them nothing. This brings up one of the hidden costs of Prop 13. The neighbors' (grandfathered) property taxes may be low, but now everyone is spending time, money, and energy on yet another CUP battle. Where's Howard Jarvis when we need some simplistic wisdom to sort this all out?  

The way the negotiations are going, the neighbors are going to get much of what they want, including further restrictions on car traffic, number of school events, and the size of the new buildings and parking garage. That’s how politics often works in LA. Powerful homeowners' groups are politically galvanized. And planners can’t even use a fiscalization argument to support the school, since the school doesn’t  doesn't enrich the city via sales taxes. So, the conversation naturally turns to traffic and construction noise and the school gets squeezed. 

I only wish Archer's neighbors were as concerned about the local public school's utter shortage of facilities as they are about Archer's desire to build new ones. 

It's hard not to think that one consequence of an underfunded public school system is that civics goes by the wayside. A little education in the unintended consequences of Howard Jarvis' crusade would have saved the world a lot of pain. Instead, Archer's neighbors get to remain blissfully ignorant while they issue their demands. The worst thing – except, of course, for under-educated children – is that if LA had better schools, it's likely that everyone's property values would rise. 

Back when I taught at Archer, my favorite course was AP Human Geography. It has a chapter on urban form. I regret that even I never touched on Prop 13. The school is certainly learning its lesson now.

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