School board backs lower tax threshold

Simitian effort would reduce parcel-tax majority to 55 percent

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."

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Like this comment
Posted by No
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 21, 2010 at 6:41 am

Completely oppose this.

For schools, just against stealing from folks, whether it be by government caveat or at gunpoint in the street. It is wrong for 6 lions to eat 5 sheep, justifying it by saying they "voted" it in.

Like this comment
Posted by Mary G
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 21, 2010 at 10:39 am

Way to go, Joe! We cannot demand higher services while concurrently demanding less out of our pockets to pay for them. It is sad that we must have parcel taxes instead of revamping our state income and property tax laws to pay for our needs as citizens. As long as Prop 13 remains as it is, we must be willing to pay more on things like parcel taxes. 65% requirement is too high for vital services like schools. 55% is much more reasonable.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 21, 2010 at 10:46 am

Why am I not surprised? Only because they did not recommend lowering the threshold to 40%.

Like this comment
Posted by Garden Gnome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 21, 2010 at 10:49 am

Whenever I read articles such as this one, I wonder:

(1) What is the school budget for the current year and the last 10 years or so? Has it increased in line with inflation, or perhaps (much) more?

(2) How much of the budget ($, not %) goes to labor overhead, as opposed to teacher salaries, and how has that amount changed over the years?

(3) How much of the budget ($,not %) goes to teacher salaries and benefits, and how has that amount changed over the years?

In general, expenditures in our fair state have risen at a rate greater than inflation. Defined pension benefits (as opposed to contributions) play no small role in this, as does the increased size of the education bureaucracy.

I'm happy to pay for teachers salaries, but not for benefits simply unavailable in the private sector.

Like this comment
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 21, 2010 at 10:52 am

I thought we were supposed to be broke as a city yet look at all the massive and expensive school projects going on. I'd rather put the money into teachers' salaries and books than landscaping.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Kenrick, Palo Alto Weekly staff
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

Jo Ann,
The city is not paying for the school building projects. Those projects are being funded by a $378 million school facilities bond that was supported by 77.54 percent of school district voters in a June 2008 election. The bond funds are for capital expenditures and cannot be put into teacher salaries (operating expenditures).

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 21, 2010 at 11:16 am

Chris states:"The bond funds are for capital expenditures and cannot be put into teacher salaries (operating expenditures)."

But guess where the funds have to come from to maintain all those things built with bond funds - the operating budget.

The schools have simply gotten out of hand - landscaping, huge performing arts centers etc. What ever happened to education?

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 21, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Garden Gnome raises some interesting questions. How much of the rising cost of education is due to inflation and not just heightened expectations for perks? What is the cost of labor unions, directly or indirectly on this -- and how can we get rid of bad teachers?

Palo Alto education is rated highly largely because of genes and money, not necessarily teacher talent. I felt that the positive experience my two children had in attending PA schools was largely due to the influence of their peers. Most of their teachers and certainly their "guidance" counselors had little of the extraordinary about them except their benefits and salaries.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Class of '67
a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Chris is right on. Bonds provide funds to use for physical school plants, not teachers. Districts hire contractors (typically among a select few) to complete capital improvements; also hire a district superintendent or equivalent who is compensated through bond funds.

School construction contracts are submitted to CA DSA - local districts rely on superintendent to approve expenditures.

Personal experience with a local school district was an eye opener.
Overhead charged by contractor (also hired by Palo Alto) was compounded to 25%; 42% including district superintendent. A shoddy, half-finished portable classroom cost $320 per sq.'; a newly constructed gym was 'mistakenly' built on a city water main when contractor ignored their engineers map. Had to be moved... In all 11M
of unnecessary charges - 25% over artificially low estimate required to be awarded contract.

Like this comment
Posted by daddy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 21, 2010 at 12:07 pm

How right you are about landscaping. I drive by M-A daily and see a host of landscape and service trucks. I am very much opposed to continuing to educate illegals. If you are a citizen, you get my money. Too many ELD and SDAIE classes replacing the basics in regular English. Why all the "workshop" classes to get illegal children up to speed too? Wake up educators and parents to this crisis in education and stop funding it.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunslinger
a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Concerned retiree hit it on the head. Simiyian wants to play hardball with fiscal conservatives. Let's teach him how we play

Like this comment
Posted by Let's focus on education
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 21, 2010 at 2:12 pm

@Peter Carpenter - I wholeheartedly agree. I look at MA's Performing Arts Center and wonder why in the world the school needed a 492 seat theater with a 40 foot tall fly tower and an orchestra pit. I'm a graduate of MA, performed in the school band, and happily made due with the facilities as they were. We had a 'multipurpose room', which is traditional for schools across the country. It worked great as a lunch room and for performances. Let's all be honest here - we don't need Broadway quality facilities for high-school quality performances. Did I mention it cost $29 MILLION?!?

When Paly recently decided to follow suit with their own $22 million dollar PAC, my jaw hit the floor. Talk about a decision based on keeping up with the neighbors... or maybe outdoing them; this one will be 600 seats.

We have over $50 million dollars approved by voters and sunk into 'nice-to-haves' because the schools begged for facilities improvements. That would pay for a lot of teachers' salaries. But the money can't be used for that. Now schools realize that it's the education that matters, and the only way they are going to satisfy that need is by retaining quality teachers.

We need to go back to the drawing board and avoid spending on trivial items that don't further our students education or their ability to perform competitively on the world stage.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Class of '67
a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Is there a mechanism through which unspent bond funds can be returned to taxpayers and/or schools? In our district, our nonprofit funded directly to teachers per their proposals. No overhead, no district participation in grants. Worked amazingly well and is ongoing.

Like this comment
Posted by carlitos ways
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 21, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Can somebody explain why non property owners get to vote on the parcel tax? Also why they keep exempting the seniors who own property and they still can vote on the parcel tax?
I am a firm believer that to pass a tax in California a 75% vote approval treshold must be kept in place, not less.

Like this comment
Posted by No-More
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jul 21, 2010 at 7:41 pm

> Saying they want to help cash-starved schools
> throughout California,

There are about 1040 school districts in California. The PAUSD BoE has shown almost no evidence of understanding its own budget, or capital expenditures .. so how could they possibly know anything about the cash management of these 1000+ districts?

The expenditure profiles for schools across the US is almost the same: 85% for salaries and benefits for employees. The schools have become engines for jobs, but not for education. There are almost $1M working in the school systems of California, according to the 2007 US Census. Anyone have any idea what they all do? Not to mention that all of these people will be demanding 72+% of their final salaries for life in terms of pensions.

What is needed is to tank the whole CA school system and start over from scratch. The taxpayers can no longer afford to be led around by the nose by labor unions, and no-think yoyos like Joe Simitian.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 21, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Just what we need, make it easier for the government to get MORE money out of our pockets. I'm afraid we getting to be tapped out, Joe. No mas. Work with what you have. Live within your means.

Or havn't ypou been paying attention?

Oh that's right, you have been paying attention. To the tax takers!

Like this comment
Posted by katie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2010 at 12:18 pm

A bit off the subject, but a good way for the state to save money would be to eliminate the county offices of education. The level of bureaucracy in California education is mind-blowing. (I am a teacher in PAUSD.) What a profound waste of money as well as time trying to slog through the levels of layers trying to get answers and/or action.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2010 at 5:36 pm

CA teachers salaries for 2009 are at
Web Link

PAUSD Budget Book 2009-2010
Web Link

PAUSD has 738.92 FTEs in 2009. Lowest pay=$51,422, average pay=$83,994, highest pay=$103,836. (Remember, teachers work about 186 days/year.)

About 86% of the school budget goes to salaries & benefits.

Teaching staff has grown disproportionately to enrollment, with an average salary increase of about 6% a year:

1994-95: teachers=478, enrollment=8274, avg teacher salary=$47.9K, prop tax=$8.5B.

2009-10: teachers=811, enrollment=11431, avg teacher salary=$86.6K, prop tax=$23.9B.

% increase: teachers 69.7%, enrollment 38.2%, salary 81%, prop tax 177%

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2010 at 5:41 pm

And about the Paly Theater...

From the PA DAILY NEWS 6-1-10: Paly theater keeps growing: New performing arts center nearly twice as big as originally planned

And from the Weekly: Web Link
New 600-seat theater proposed for Paly
School officials have applied for $6 million in state grants to make up for the estimated $4.68 million extra cost of the new theater beyond its original $17.72 million budget.

Like this comment
Posted by anne
a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2010 at 9:10 pm


Are you saying that the teacher salaries are too high?
How much do you think a teacher should make?
Do you think teachers should be paid less than it costs to live in the community they work in?
(Remember, teachers are paid to work about 186 days a year, but the good teachers work much more than that...evenings, weekends, and throughout the summer developing curriculum and taking classes to enhance their teaching skills.)

FWIW, I taught in PAUSD for 10 years. My first year teaching job was in 1993 and I made $26k. (that was in SSFUSD, not PAUSD). My share of rent was $330/month, yet I was unable to cover all my expenses each month. So instead of taking classes and spending extra time on my classroom, I took temp jobs every day that I didn't teach. This included the day after Thanksgiving and the week of Christmas. Every day off, I worked just to help make ends meet. When I moved to PAUSD my pay was much better. I spent all that time on developing teaching skills and planning engaging and exciting activities for the classroom.

I also want to add that lowering class size in grades K-3 has tremendous value for the students in those classes. I taught 1st grade with 30 students and with 20 students. HUGE difference in meeting the individual needs of each child academically, socially, and emotionally. It is an expensive intervention, but one that I truly believe makes a positive difference for the students. That's why PAUSD extended class size reduction to higher grades as well.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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