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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Guest Opinion: Yes on Measure A -- a critical choice for our schools' quality Guest Opinion: Yes on Measure A -- a critical choice for our schools' quality (May 18, 2005)

by Jon Foster

Measure A, the replacement of our expiring school parcel tax on the June 7 ballot, is the most important issue our community has faced in a long time.

Will we continue to value and support public education -- and attract residents who feel the same way -- or will we let our schools decline as they have in other California communities?

This is not a question I ever thought I would have to ask as a Palo Alto resident.

I have not previously been an active participant in local campaigns or education issues. But after Measure I narrowly failed to get the required two-thirds majority last November, I did some independent research and came to some frightening realizations.

In the last two decades, California has let the quality of its public education slip dramatically. We are now almost last in many measures of educational quality -- the amount we spend on public education, per-pupil, is one of the lowest nationwide.

And I was shocked to hear that local parcel tax opponents favored saving money by laying off teachers and increasing class sizes. When the Palo Alto school board placed Measure A, a revised and reduced school parcel tax, on the ballot, I had to get involved.

If Measure A fails, our district will lose $5.5 million from the expiring parcel tax beginning next year.

What could mean for our schools? The layoff of 15 percent of our teachers, increases in class size of up to 40 percent, reduced instruction in our middle and high schools, and the closure of an elementary school.

A voter who thinks he or she will be preserving the status quo by voting "no" on Measure A is severely mistaken.

Because Measure A needs a two-thirds majority to pass, opponents of education funding only have to confuse a minority of voters to devastate our schools. That's why I am particularly concerned about their misleading arguments:

1) Property tax revenue: Opponents claim the district receives "$17 million in excess property tax revenue in response to growing enrollment." This is simply false. The district receives absolutely no increased revenue as enrollment increases. In fact, enrollment hikes in the past three years have added $3 million to the district's costs.

2) Revenue growth: Opponents claim Measure A is not needed because of district revenue growth in the past seven years. In fact, when adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, the district's real revenue has increased at the rate of only 2 percent per year. Palo Altans for Government Efficiency recently examined school finances and concluded that, without Measure A very substantial cuts will be required over the next five years.

3) Teacher pay: Opponents claim our teachers are overpaid because they earn more than the state average. But the relevant comparison is to other high-achieving school districts in our area -- and district salaries are mid-range on that scale.

4) Transfer students: Opponents suggest the district could save money by excluding children in the Tinsley program and charging for children who live in Stanford married-student housing. In fact, children in the Tinsley program are entitled to attend our schools under a court desegregation order; children of Stanford families who reside in our district are entitled to attend our schools on the same terms as all other residents. What's more, under 4 percent of district students are children of Stanford families, but Stanford property tax payments make up more than 10 percent of our school district's revenues.

5) Superintendent's salary: Opponents urge a "no" vote on Measure A because we pay our school superintendent above the state average. In fact, the superintendent's salary is based on superintendent compensation in other high-performing districts. More important, Measure A has nothing to do with superintendent compensation! No funds from Measure A can be used for central administration or salary increases.

6) Home prices: Remarkably, opponents argue that our high-quality schools do not affect home prices. In fact, most real estate professionals think a significant portion of the value of Palo Alto property is directly attributable to our reputation for school quality. That "Palo Alto premium" may account for 15 percent of a home's value.

7) Management of funds: Opponents claim the district mismanages the funds it has. In fact, the district has won a meritorious school budget award for the past seven years. Even more important, our school district produces students with top-level test scores despite spending much less per pupil than many leading school districts around the country. (Our district spends about $10,500 per year per student, while Princeton, NJ, spends $19,000 and Scarsdale, NY, spends $21,500). Given how California funds its schools, few high-performing districts can function without a parcel tax.

If you are unhappy with district administration, elect new school board members this November. But don't harm the schools by voting against Measure A in June.

I've been fortunate to be joined in the campaign for Measure A by two tremendous co-chairs, many hardworking colleagues, more than 500 dedicated volunteers and literally thousands of supporters. It is heartwarming to see the outpouring of support for quality education.

Palo Alto is not yet a town where the only students who attend public schools are those who had no other choice.

If Measure A passes, we will remain that way -- but for that to happen, every member of our community who values public education must cast a vote in support of Measure A on June 7. For more information, please visit www.campaignforexcellence.org.

Jon Foster co-chairs of the Measure A campaign with Megan Swezey Fogarty and Gary Fazzino. He lives in Palo Alto, is general counsel of a software company and the father of two children, one enrolled at Duveneck Elementary School and the other in pre-school. He can be e-mailed at jfoster@jfoster.net.


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