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    Albany to go to polls Nov. 3 for schools vote

    By Barbara Grady-Ayer
    an endorser of Albany ballot Measures I and J

    Albany voters will be asked to consider two parcel tax measures on November 3 aimed at saving Albany schools from the state’s worst financial crisis in half a century.

    The Measures I and J would restore less than half the money the state took away from Albany’s school district this year. However, they would keep Albany schools from a rapid deterioration by paying for a number of the academic programs and teaching services that Albany is holding onto with virtual band-aids and shoe-string this year.

    For the current year, the district is using 2009 federal Stimulus program grants of $1.2 million to fund some programs. That money won’t be available next year. It’s also using donations from Albany parents and citizens. Although those donations poured in at a record-breaking amount this year, they still added up to only a fraction of the $4.2 million the state took away from Albany in its education budget.

    So in many ways, Measures I and J are a referendum on whether the community wants to preserve the kind of education Albany has had or let it slide downhill, many believe.

    “I feel that I cannot stand by and watch the quality of education in Albany sink along with the state budget,” said Miriam Walden, a parent and board of education member who is leading the Measures I and J campaign.

    Buoyed by the thought that Albany can bypass the troubles experienced in other school districts by passing the parcel tax measures — and by fear of what would happen if Albany does not get this funding — dozens of volunteers for the Measures I and J campaign have been out canvassing neighborhoods in recent weeks talking to people about the two measures. Last weekend, the volunteers visited 850 homes, bringing to 1,500 the number of front porch conversations or visits that have been had about Measures I and J in recent weeks.

    Measures I is an emergency tax of $149 a year per house or residence. It is designed to get Albany schools through the current crisis by lasting five years.

    Measure J is not a new tax. It would renew an existing tax that is set to expire in a few years and thereby stabilize funding by keeping all past parcel taxes on the books. It also provides an exemption for seniors and low-income residents. (Go to www.savealbanyschools.org for more information)

    “The message we need to send about supporting public education is not to a state legislature that won’t respond. It’s to our kids and to our teachers. And we’re the only ones who can deliver it. I’m voting yes on I and J,” said Bob Menzimer, one of the volunteers.

    Marla Stephenson, superintendent of the Albany Unified School District, has said that renewing the existing parcel taxes is absolutely crucial if Albany is to maintain the level of educational offerings and quality it now is holding onto so tenuously. That is because as the state has withdrawn money from education, Albany and other districts have used parcel taxes to fund core programs, rather than extras, and to hold classroom sizes at teachable amounts. Still this year, classes in Albany schools are more crowded than they have been in a generation. Stephenson said Albany needs the emergency tax, Measure I, if it is to hold on to the quality that people have come to expect of Albany schools.

    “Those parcel taxes are essential to the running of the school system,” Stephenson said at an Albany Board of Education meeting last summer when the parcel tax was being decided. She said if the renewal measure doesn’t pass “we will go back to the voters again and again until it does” because Albany desperately needs those funds.

    If measure J does not pass, there would be a $2.5 million hole in the budget in addition to whatever reductions the state may or may not pass. The emergency tax, Measure I, would bring in $1.2 million. A committee of volunteers and the board of education determined last summer that to seek more than this amount would be too burdensome on some Albany residents. The committee did a research survey of a few hundred homes to see what level of a parcel tax most people would be comfortable with. They arrived at $149 a year instead of $200 or $250 because the recession is already putting stress on people’s pocket books. Stephenson said restoring all cut programs would cost above $250 in new taxes per household.

    Measures I and J need a two/thirds majority vote to pass, so the committee felt it was essential that most people were comfortable with the tax.

    A number of the volunteers no longer have children in the school system. But as several people said, the quality of Albany schools seem to be what has been holding up property values in Albany.

    “Why should we impose this tax burden upon ourselves when prospects are currently so uncertain and funds so scarce? The reason is simple: self-interest. Albany property values far exceed expectations, primarily due to Albany’s commitment to schools,” said Robert Cheasty, an Albany resident whose children are grown and no long in the schools.

    He said that while he definitely wants to support the education of children, “Any quick survey shows that those communities that pass school taxes are the communities with the best property values.”

    To visit the Albany Unified School District web site go to http://ausd.ca.schoolloop.com

    Barbara Grady-Ayer has endorsed and contributed money to the Measures I and J campaigns for Albany schools. She is also a parent of two children in the Albany school system.

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