By Barbara Grady
Across California, local public school districts are picking up a job abandoned by the state by passing measures to adequately fund their schools. In ballot measures using words like “emergency” and “education preservation” 44 California school districts asked voters this year and last to approve parcel taxes rather than make students endure crowded classrooms or high school without sports, as the state would have them do.
In Albany on Tuesday night, the board of education voted unanimously to put an emergency parcel tax measure on the November ballot. It would be a five-year tax of $149 per household (or parcel) per year to plug the holes in school funding brought on by the state’s $11 billion cuts to education. One board member was absent but all others voted for the measure.
The Albany Unified School District board also voted unanimously (or 4-to-0) to place a second measure on the ballot that would wrap Albany’s three existing parcel taxes into one, make them permanent and exempt seniors and low income households from all of them. Currently, one of these parcel taxes is set to expire in three years and some of the parcel taxes do not exempt seniors and low income residents. Both the emergency tax measure and the tax combination and renewal measure will be on the November 3 ballot.
“The reality is we cannot do without parcel tax income,” said board president David Glasser, in words that echoed every other board member as well as Superintendent Marla Stephenson.
Stephenson said that if these two measures are not passed in November “We will go out again and again to voters and keep asking,” in subsequent measures “because we must have this parcel tax to continue at this level – and this level is bare bones.”
She was referring mostly to the 2005 parcel tax which is $250 per household or parcel and brings in about $2 million a year. The school district has come to rely on this revenue to fund core programs in required academic fields, now that the state has cut so deeply into its budget. The 2005 tax will expire in three years – unless the measure that combines it with others and makes it a permanent tax passes.
Board member Miram Walden, who chaired the volunteer group of citizens who studied the feasibility of a new parcel tax in Albany and who conducted the research around it, said the challenge will be in getting two-thirds of Albany voters to approve it. California law requires two-thirds approval for any property tax measures, whether they are state or local initiatives. That’s a tough bar to hurdle. Redwood City proposed a parcel tax which the vast majority of voters approved, or 63.6 percent but that, of course, is less than the 66.7 percent needed by law. The survey of Albany voters that Walden led found that most people would support a tax to preserve Albany schools, but it was unclear whether that majority can grow to 66.7 percent of voters is uncertain. (To contact Miriam to work on the parcel tax campaign please email firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Albany school district patched together a budget for the year about to begin – enduring a $4 million cut to this school district alone – with the help of generous donations from the community to fundraising groups and almost $1 million in federal Stimulus money. But the Stimulus money is a one-time grant and the school district cannot plan lasting programs banking on year to year fundraising. Even with this help, many of the classes and programs that Albany students enjoyed in the past will be gone come September and classes will be more crowded. Still, Albany managed not to gut the education system that has given it pride in the past and kept local property values high.
Albany’s three existing parcel taxes add up to $555 per household or parcel and, for commercial properties, 11 cents per square foot. The measure to combine these taxes would continue that tax but not increase it. It would make various terms and conditions consistent through all three taxes, such as the exemption.
Adding the new emergency parcel tax would bring the yearly total in Albany parcel taxes to $704 a household. That is still less than parcel taxes paid by neighboring Berkeley or Piedmont – which this year approved measures for $2,330 per household in new and extended parcel taxes. Albany’s amount is more than the West Contra Costa district or Orinda’s elementary and middle school district.
Twenty-three school districts have put education parcel taxes on the ballot in 2009 so far and of them 15 have passed. An additional 21 districts put measures on the ballot last year, mostly in November and 17 of those passed. The new taxes range in amount from $78 in San Carlos and $96 in Novato to $795 in San Marino.