Mr. Ingratitude

Note to Don Bren: Take this bailout and shove it

"Thank you" might suffice. It's certainly what you're supposed to say when someone gives you a gift. Just call me Mr. Ingratitude because I don't feel the least bit grateful for April 13's "surprise" decision by the Irvine Co., the Donald Bren Foundation and the Irvine Public Schools Foundation to rescue Irvine's public schools. In fact, I feel goddamned foolish for supporting Measure A—betrayed by the claim that voting on April 11 for a $95-per-year, 16-year tax was the only way to prevent the immediate destruction of public education in Irvine and angry that a bailout wasn't put before the public much earlier.

Less than 48 hours after the second Irvine parcel-tax proposal in five months failed to win the necessary two-thirds approval of the voters, Donald Bren and Irvine Co. executive Gary Hunt stepped in just in the nick of time to prevent the executioner's ax from falling on at least 120 Irvine teachers scheduled for dismissal. That Thursday evening, the clueless Irvine Unified School Board had scheduled a special meeting to begin hacking away at teachers and programs in the wake of another parcel-tax defeat.

Bren and Hunt's intervention saved trustee Margie Wakeham from another public crying jag and miraculously transformed the financial landscape of the Irvine public school system. Suddenly, the "huge," "insurmountable" budgetary shortfall of some $5 million —the shortfall that moved hundreds of people to spend countless hours campaigning for Measure A, which led thousands of citizens to vote for Measure A and which we were told could not be remedied by any means but a tax hike—was filled with the mere promise of $3.9 million.

The Irvine Co. says it will expedite payment to the schools of $1.875 million already pledged; the Bren Foundation says it will kick in another $350,000; and the Irvine Public Schools Foundation promised to contribute $1.65 million, of which only $500,000 has been raised.

Problem solved. At least temporarily. At least for a year. But the execution has only been stayed—the conviction has not been overturned. What we have here is only a temporary reprieve, what leading Measure A proponent Hugh Hewitt called a "bridge" donation to the Irvine Unified School District.

But where does Hewitt's bridge lead? What miracle will next save the Irvine public schools from impending financial disaster?

Unfortunately, the next miracle will not be a tax increase, and the bailout "bridge" can't lead us to another parcel-tax vote. The benevolent bailout nailed that coffin shut. The rapid generosity of all involved in packaging April 13's bailout has all but guaranteed that a parcel tax for public education will not pass in Irvine, no matter how bad things get. Not for a very long time.

Why? Because the allegedly well-intended salvation of the public schools made liars out of every single person—myself included—who argued that this was a financial crisis out of which we could not beg or borrow our way, not in the short term. But as it turned out—and heaven help me for saying so—the leading opponents of Measure A were right. The private sector—with its strong financial interest in attracting new businesses to the Irvine Spectrum and maintaining the value (that is, price) of new homes in Irvine—came to the rescue in the short term.

As a result, fewer citizens will believe calls for more tax revenue, no matter how earnest, when the school board comes back in a year or so, repeating its talk of "looming cuts" and the "disaster" that await the community if a parcel tax is not passed. The rapid-fire bailout after the defeat of Measure A vindicates the claim of tax opponents that the school board was crying wolf all along.

Which brings me to the final cause for ingratitude: timing. Why in the world wasn't a joint bailout for the Irvine Unified School District proposed earlier in the year? Before more than 200 of the finest teachers in the state received pink slips? Before thousands of Irvine schoolchildren were worked into a frenzy of worry over the future of their teachers and schools? Before hundreds of thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of volunteer hours were devoted to successive losing parcel-tax campaigns?

If it was possible to cobble together a $3.875 million "bridge donation" in less than 48 hours, why didn't the school board and other interested parties start building the bridge months ago? The answer is cynical, I'll admit, but probably accurate: none of the parties with a strong financial incentive to maintain the reputed quality of public education in Irvine had an incentive to bridge the school district's budget deficit as long as the public might be persuaded—last autumn or this spring—to tax themselves instead. When more than a third of the electorate said no the second time, the bailout appeared like magic.

Given the authentic anguish caused to Irvine's schoolchildren, especially the younger ones who still venerate their teachers, and to Irvine's youngest and most vulnerable teachers, who feared a summer of job hunting, the failure to construct a bailout bridge before those pink slips were issued was immoral. This inaction, this non-decision to "wait" for the outcome on Election Day, should weigh heavily on the hearts of everyone who may have known or reasonably surmised all along that the Irvine Co. has too big a bottom-line investment in the quality of an Irvine public education to let a few million dollars stand in the way of continuing profits.

Capitalism saved the Irvine public schools in the short term. Yet by doing it so soon after the defeat of Measure A, capitalism has also left public education in Irvine vulnerable to the vagaries of the bottom line.

"Thank you" isn't the appropriate response.

 
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