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    School district considers emergency parcel tax and delaying pool bond

    A new idea surfaced on how to save Albany schools from the severest cuts that would result after California slashes education spending: ask Albany voters for an emergency, short-term parcel tax.

    When parents and school board members met last week at budget forums to tackle the grim task of choosing what teaching positions and programs to cut, talk kept turning instead to how to raise revenues. The idea of a parcel tax came up in the form of a question scribbled on a piece of paper and slipped in front of Superintendent of Schools Marla Stephenson.

    Stephenson read the suggestion out load at the board’s brainstorming session and again mentioned it at Middle School and elementary schools budget forums.

    “It’s an idea worth exploring,” Stephenson said. With a list of cuts that includes everything from giving up small classes for kindergarten to third grade to eliminating electives and shortening the school day at the high school and middle school, and favorites like music and sports, “People are stunned,” Stephenson said.

    The Albany board of education has not yet discussed the idea of an emergency parcel tax idea because it has not been part of any formal agenda. Board member Patricia Low said the board plans to discuss it Feb. 23, its next budget session.

    As described in conversation, the proposal might look like this: a referendum would go on the June ballot asking voters to approve a three year parcel tax as an emergency measure to preserve teacher, counselor and custodian positions in Albany schools and maintain some programs. The parcel tax would raise about $1 million or about half of the $2.2 million in cuts now being considered, with hope that other revenues such as federal stimulus money, community fundraising, or unspent 2008 funds could provide the rest.

    Interestingly, Albany taxpayers would not likely see taxes rise any more than what they’ve already approved, Stephenson and others explained. That is because the pool bond that Albany voters approved last year has yet to be floated because of the volatile conditions in the bond market. If that delay continues another year or so, the emergency parcel tax could be paid for before taxpayers need to begin paying for pool construction bonds.

    The board has already been considering delaying the sale of bonds for the pool because the current extreme volatility in the financial markets would make issuing bonds more expensive than envisioned when the bond measure was passed. At its January 20 meeting, the board listened to its bond counsel from KNN Public Finance explain that investor interest in bonds has dried up and consequently municipal bond interest rates have risen to attract buyers. Albany residents would have to pay more, or pay out longer, if bonds were to be issued right now. So, the board was mulling over delaying the bond sale or splitting it in two, selling half the voter-approved amount, or $5 million, soon so construction could begin on an indoor pool and classrooms, and wait to sell the other half until the bond market settles down to complete the project.

    Another reason the Superintendent and board are considering delaying the pool bond is that yearly costs to operate the pool will be about $200,000, Stephenson said. That’s the same as three teaching positions, teachers that could be lost or preserved, depending on the status of the pool. Stephenson said she also wants to ask the Albany City Council to help pay for pool operations since so many users of the pool are not school children.

    Decisions about a parcel tax and about layoffs and other cuts have to be made soon – by next month – to comply with law. Teachers need to be notified by March 15 if they are going to lose their jobs. A June ballot measure has to be registered in March. But the district will not know its total revenue picture until about June.

    “The real issue is what can we bring back in June,” Stephenson said. That is when the district will know how much money it actually has, not only because that is when voters would decide on a parcel tax but also that is when donations from SchoolCARE are tallied and presented. Other sources of funds could be the federal stimulus package, although the district has calculated that Albany’s portion of that would be less than $700,000, as well as a reallocation of the 2005 parcel tax money and left overs from the current year’s budget.

    If you would like to learn more about the emergency parcel tax consideration, attend the Feb. 23 budget study session of the Board of Education which will be held at 5:30 p.m. at Cornell School in the multi-purpose room. You may also visit http://ausd.ca.schoolloop.com

    By Barbara Grady-Ayer

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