All of the Palo Alto school board members expressed support Tuesday night for what they said is a much-needed financial injection from an increased parcel tax that will likely appear on the ballot this May, with only one member dissenting on the amount of the tax.
The proposed parcel tax, which would begin on July 1 and last six years with 2-percent annual increases, would raise the $638 per-parcel tax that voters now pay by $120, to $758 per parcel. (Voters approved in 2010 under Measure A a $589 parcel tax, which included automatic annual increases of 2 percent.) The proposed $120-increase would generate an additional $2.3 million in parcel tax revenue, initially providing $14.7 million in total revenue in the 2015-16 year, Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak said.
While Mak painted a dim outlook for the future of the district's finances warning that while the local and state economies seem to be rebounding, Palo Alto Unified is not getting any new, ongoing, unrestricted funding from the state board member Terry Godfrey said she was wary to ask voters for a $120 increase.
She cited a poll that a consultant administered for the district in December, which found that 70 percent of the 402 registered Palo Alto voters surveyed supported the $120 increase after hearing both positives and negative arguments for it. (The poll simulated opposition arguments to the increase, and asked what amounts voters would support based on both the positive and negative arguments.)
"I don't actually support the $120 increase not because we don't need it, but because the polling in my mind was not completely solid," she said, comparing it to the 69 percent of original support indicated for a 2004 parcel tax (which would have boosted an existing tax from $293 per parcel to $521) that fell just short of the two-thirds of support needed to pass.
District consultant Charles Heath said in light of the poll as a whole, "I don't think it's a barrier to success," he said. "The rest of the poll is a glowing green light that the community would support a renewal and an increase."
Godfrey said she was more comfortable with a $96 increase, which garnered 73 percent of support after voters heard both positive and negative information.
She also warned that "a 400-person survey isn't representative of the community" and urged her colleagues to align the ambitious wish list of programs and efforts that the new tax could pay for with the district's overarching strategic plan and focused goals.
That wish list, which is divided into three sections equitable opportunities and access; STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programming and pathways; and student wellness asks for the community's support in enabling efforts like the expansion of summer school and early literacy intervention, support for Buena Vista Mobile Home Park students who might be displaced, engineering curriculum for middle and high school, family counseling programs, nursing services at the elementary schools and annual bias and harassment training for students and staff.
However, missing from the ballot language itself is the piece on student wellness, said board vice president Heidi Emberling
"Students' social-emotional health should not be an afterthought," she said. "It should be an integral part of any districtwide goal."
Emberling suggested adding a clause to the ballot that reads, "strengthen efforts to promote student health and well-being." The other board members expressed support for doing so.
Board member Camille Townsend said the increased revenue from the renewed parcel tax is "critical."
"If you compare ourselves to equivalent district across the nation, we simply don't have the money," she said. "The demands that this community puts on its administrators, its teachers and its students, frankly, is incredible. How do we do all that the community wants?"
According to the poll, the top three issues that the parcel tax currently supports that voters said are most important are attracting and retaining qualified teachers; supporting advanced programs in science, math and technology; and providing enhanced electives for high school students, including art, music and social sciences.
In descending order, the other important "problems" are keeping elementary school libraries open an fully staffed; maintaining teaching specialists in the areas of reading, math and science; maintaining teacher training and support programs; providing additional school counselors and psychologists for students who need help; and maintaining smaller class sizes.
The most important new use for additional parcel tax money, according to those surveyed, was adding support staff to help at-risk students who are struggling with the basics (78 percent said it is very/somewhat important and 31 percent said it is very important).
Townsend said there are other priorities she felt weren't represented in the survey, such as world language instruction.
Board president Melissa Baten Caswell cautioned that even with a $120 increase, the district will not be able to accomplish all of the items on the community or district's wish list.
"Staff will have to pick from the categories," she said. "They're not going to be able to do the whole ball of wax."
The board will vote on the parcel tax at its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 27.