Saying they want to help cash-starved schools throughout California, members of the Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday endorsed a measure to reduce the school-tax threshold.
If passed by the Legislature and approved by voters, the state constitutional amendment would lower the majority approval required to pass a school parcel tax from the present two-thirds to 55 percent.
The proposal is sponsored by State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who began his political career as a member of the Palo Alto school board.
"I need help helping you," Simitian said in a letter to school districts seeking endorsement of the measure.
A similar bid by Simitian has failed three times before, most recently last year.
In a phone interview from Sacramento Tuesday, Simitian said he will "force the issue" this year because of the state's inability to fund education adequately.
"We're very clearly in a place where the state is unable to provide the level of funding for a quality program of instruction, so the least we can do is give this tool to local folks so they can make the choice about local needs," he said.
Palo Alto's two most recent school parcel-tax elections have comfortably exceeded the two-thirds requirement.
In May of this year, 79.4 percent of voters approved an annual $589-per-parcel tax. That vote replaced a $493-per-parcel tax approved by 78 percent of voters in June 2005.
But seven months earlier, in November 2004, a bid to boost an existing tax from $293 per parcel to $521 per parcel narrowly failed. It received 66.03 percent of the vote, just short of the 66.67 percent needed to pass.
Palo Alto's current annual $589-per-parcel tax generates about $11.2 million a year, comprising some 7 percent of the school district's operating budget.
Lowering the threshold "would empower local jurisdictions to have control over whether they support their local schools," school board member Barb Mitchell said Tuesday.
"These are locally-controlled funds."
Board member Dana Tom, who chairs the Santa Clara County School Boards Association, said the majority of parcel taxes that have failed across California would have passed with a 55 percent threshold.
Those include recent parcel tax bids in the Santa Clara Unified School District (defeated with 62.96 percent of the vote); Fremont Union High School District in Cupertino (defeated with 59.66 percent of the vote); Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (defeated with 64.25 percent of the vote) and Alameda Unified School District (defeated with 65.5 percent of the vote), according to political consultant Charles Heath of TBWB Strategies.
In an effort to broaden support for the proposal, Simitian amended his measure to limit the 55 percent threshold to parcel taxes of $250 or less. Measures seeking funds beyond that amount would still need a two-thirds majority to pass.
The two-thirds requirement originated with the 1978 tax-cutting initiative Proposition 13, which created the parcel tax itself.
"It's an interesting debate I've had in committee over the years. When people say it's contrary to the spirit of Proposition 13, I say, 'Actually, Proposition 13 created the parcel tax, so let's allow the voters to weigh in on the 55 percent majority,'" Simitian said.
Simitian's effort would mirror Proposition 39, a 2000 initiative that reduced the threshold for school facilities bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent. That measure was approved by 53.3 percent of California voters.
Simitian said people often mistakenly believe he was behind Proposition 39, but "I have no right whatsoever to be credited with it."