Raises for Berkeley Teachers: Should a Parcel Tax Fund Them?

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Teacher Lisa Rossi with students at Jefferson Elementary School in Berkeley on Feb. 28, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On a breezy Saturday afternoon on a street of elegant old Berkeley homes, Dan and Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs exited their car with provisions enough "for a week in the desert," laughed Jenny. Together with their two elementary school kids, Callie and Joel, they began knocking on doors.

"OK, kiddos. Your first canvassing experience," Jenny said.

The Mulholland-Beahrs were stumping for Measure E on the March 3 ballot, which would raise local property taxes to fund raises for teachers in Berkeley Unified School District.

Measure E would levy an additional 12.4 cents per square foot on homes, with the aim to raise nearly $10 million a year.

For the Mulholland-Beahrs, it's a bread and butter issue: Dan has been teaching at Berkeley High for 11 years. The passage of Measure E would allow district teachers to get the remainder of a 12% raise over the course of two years that the teachers union negotiated with the district in October.

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The measure's backers say it's been endorsed by every elected official in the city, but some residents are questioning whether it is one tax too many.

"I slowly started getting involved when I realized that our property taxes are going steadily up," said homeowner Nick Zahariadis, who bought his Berkeley home 15 years ago. "What I find is not very nuanced with this approach. It's a very blunt instrument on both ends."

Zahariadis sees Measure E as taking from one middle class group — homeowners — to pay another — teachers.

Dan and Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs with their kids, Callie and Joel, go door to door in support of Measure E on the March 3 ballot, which would raise local property taxes to fund raises for teachers in Berkeley Unified School District.
Dan and Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs with their kids, Callie and Joel, go door to door in support of Measure E on the March 3 ballot, which would raise local property taxes to fund raises for teachers in Berkeley Unified School District. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

One analysis by city staff found that the tax would amount to an additional $186 every year for a 1,500 square foot home. According to the school district, the average homeowner currently pays between 15% and 20% of their property tax bill to schools.

Measure E would require a two-thirds majority to pass. Voters are also being asked to renew two other school funding measures: Measure G to continue the district's bond obligation to improve and remodel school facilities and Measure H to extend funding for ongoing maintenance of district facilities.

Last fall, Berkeley district schools began with more teacher vacancies than normal, according to Janine Waddell, vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

Waddell said improving teaching salaries would help the district be more competitive as it recruits and retains top quality teachers. If the measure passes, a starting teacher's salary would go from $53,274 to $58,428 in the coming school year, bringing them more in line with teachers in other East Bay school districts, according to BFT President Matt Meyer.

As the Mulholland-Beahrs knocked on doors, several people who answered said they intended to vote yes on Measure E.

Matt Rowe bought his home in Berkeley four years ago. Even though the three different school funding measures up for a vote could increase the schools' portion of his property tax bill by about 30%, Rowe said he's not hesitating.

"We are happy to support community taxes and in general feel that people who are not struggling for comforts and food should probably be paying more taxes in general," Rowe said.

Berkeley homeowner Matt Rowe says he is likely to support paying more to support teachers.
Berkeley homeowner Matt Rowe says he is likely to support paying more to support teachers. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

But Zahariadis and others say, when it comes to calculating taxes, the devil is in the details: By his own calculations, Zahariadis thinks the portion of his tax bill that would go to schools would increase by $600.

"You have to understand, we're heading into November," he said. "We know we're going to get mega bonds and other tax measures. This keeps going."

Recently, Zahariadis and homeowner Isabelle Gaston met up at Cedar-Rose Park to share their concerns with KQED. They are part of an informal group of homeowners who have become friends as they've tried to decipher how their properties are being assessed.

Gaston says she and her husband are close to retirement and concerned about the snowballing effect of taxes as they age.

"It took me a good 45 minutes to an hour to sit down and do all the math," she said. "I'm looking at about a 42.5% increase or close to just under $900."

The variables for how the tax hike would be calculated include when someone purchased their home, whether they've paid off their mortgages and even how the square footage of their home is calculated.

Many homeowners have benefited from Proposition 13, which went into effect in 1978 and has since restricted the rate of property tax increases to 2% annually. According to U.S. census data, about 18% of Berkeley homeowners bought their homes more than 30 years ago and presumably pay relatively little in taxes.

Zahariadis and his friends were also surprised to find that the city's records often don't match the square footage listed on a property when it was purchased.

Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program agrees that it's tough to determine the increased cost to an average homeowner if Measures E, G and H were to pass.

Beery pointed to three similarly sized homes on the same street that she said could sell for about the same price. Her research found these homeowners are paying wildly different property taxes: $7,000, $15,000 and $26,000.

"The one with the lowest bill is actually the largest house," she wrote in an email. "It was purchased before Prop. 13, the owners are seniors in their late 70s, their kids are grown, their mortgage is presumably paid off."

Beery said the home with the highest tax bill was purchased within the last 10 years by parents with kids in school.

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Measure E includes exemptions for people on Supplemental Security Income for disability and Social Security Disability Insurance and for low-income seniors who earn less than $49,500 for a two-person household.

About a third of Berkeley seniors who are homeowners are paying over 30% of household income toward housing costs, according to the American Community Survey released in 2017.

Berkeley resident Mary Behm-Steinberg is disabled and receives SSDI, and her income combined with that of her husband's only totals $71,000, she said. But that's not low enough to qualify for a tax exemption from the city of Berkeley.

Behm-Steinberg said she strongly supports more money for schools, but that bond measures are not the way to do it.

"What we should really be striving for is a sustainable way to combat the root of the financial problems we're facing, and that means addressing income inequality in a real and substantial way," she said. "We should be taxing large corporations at a robust level, both on income and property, as well as imposing a robust income tax on the highest income earners, and a Robin Hood tax on stock trades."

At the Berkeley Property Owners Association, Executive Director Krista Gulbransen said she's worried about the squeeze that additional taxes will put on Berkeley's middle class.

"There are middle class people who scraped together in the past five years and purchased a property and have a higher assessed value," she said. "I think what we are seeing across the United States is the crunch and sort of suffocation of the middle class."

But as long as Proposition 13 remains in effect, many residents say that local taxes and other measures are necessary, like longtime Berkeley resident and retired teacher Brooks Geiken, who still coaches track at Berkeley High.

"Schools are about the future," he said. "Older generations need to give it up and invest in the kids. You can’t think about yourself in this particular case. You have to think about how are the kids down the line going to benefit from this."

Berkeley voters have a strong track record of approving tax hikes for its schools, Brooks pointed out. It's part of what has made the district a desirable place to live for families with children, he added, noting that good schools help boost everyone's property values.

Back at the campaign headquarters for Measures E, G and H on University Avenue, a steady stream of teachers and volunteers were signing up to pound the pavement.

"Hundreds of volunteers have been going door to door every Saturday," BFT's Waddell said. "Our community has been incredibly supportive. We know in Berkeley our schools are very successful and a huge part of what makes Berkeley so great. We're feeling confident about Election Day."

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Note, this story was changed to reflect the Berkeley teachers raise over two years is 12%, not 12.5% as originally reported in this story. We regret the error.