With 11 days left until Palo Alto's special school parcel-tax election, Measure A campaigners are working to corral support for what they see as a critical financial injection for Palo Alto schools, while others in the community are calling the vote a referendum on school-district leadership.
Voters are being asked to consider a $120 increase on the tax they currently pay, which expires next June. If approved by two-thirds of voters, the proposed $758 per-parcel tax would begin on July 1 and last six years with 2-percent annual increases. The tax includes an optional exemption for seniors who are 65 and older.
While the $13 million generated each year would continue to accomplish one of the tax's original purposes to keep class sizes down the proposed increase would provide $2.3 million to support additional investments in student health and wellness efforts, academic supports for struggling students and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) instruction.
With no arguments opposing Measure A submitted to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, the most vocal debate is taking place on Palo Alto Online's Town Square. Much of the opposition sees Measure A as a means to send a message to school district leaders in the wake of several student suicides this year; others are resisting funding a district that is more financially stable than in years past.
Support Palo Alto Schools 2015 campaign co-chairs Nana Chancellor and Sarah Woodham said that treating the parcel tax like a "political pawn" is destructive, distracts from the work needed to address current issues in the schools and will harm every student in the district. The tax pays for 85 full-time staff, including teachers, librarians and counselors and serves a primary purpose of keeping class sizes as small as possible at a time of ballooning student populations throughout the district.
"When the parcel tax was first voted in in 2001, the whole purpose of it was class size reductions. It's still the number one place where the money is going ... and it affects every single student in Palo Alto," Chancellor said. "If you kill Measure A, you are hurting every single student."
Lee The, a former district parent, cast his "no" vote on Measure A this week despite having consistently supported the tax in the past. He said that he felt voting "no" on the measure was a more effective way to communicate with district leadership than the typical channels, like sharing his opinion at a board meeting. He compared the May election to the November 2013 vote, when Palo Altans overturned an approved senior housing development on Maybell Avenue.
"I can communicate by voting, just as we did with Maybell," The said.
Some Town Square posters share this motivation. (Other opponents of Measure A declined to speak on the record for this story.)
"I am a parent who has long volunteered for and valued our schools," one person wrote on Town Square on April 18. "Right now, we do not need the money as much as we very, very much need to send a message to the district office that they cannot ignore."
Another poster wrote on April 10: "This district has a habit of promising and not delivering when it comes to mental health, counseling, and student assistance programs. Even after several emotionally tragic years, the talk has been ongoing with little real change. I think they need to first spend a bit of capital (personal and financial) to insure they will move forward with their proposals and then ask for more support."
Chancellor and Woodham are urging the community to separate any anger and fear stemming from several student suicides this year from the district's financial needs, which they say are great even in an improved economic climate. Enrollment increases the district has grown by 1,100 new students over the last six years and is projected to increase by another 700 over the next five years coupled with decreased state and federal funding and $1.86 million from the Cubberley Community Center lease that is being diverted to infrastructure repairs make the parcel-tax funding even more critical, supporters say.
Supporters also frequently point to the fact that Palo Alto's per-student funding has failed to keep up with inflation and with other affluent school districts outside of the state. Though total revenue is up 20 percent since 2008, funding per student has only increased by 10 percent, according to district figures.
As federal and state funding decreases and stays flat, the district has continued to lean on local sources of funding, primarily property-tax revenues, the existing parcel tax, Partners in Education (PiE) fundraising and money from the district's leases.
Some voters, however, are not convinced that the district is in the same dire financial state as it was when past tax measures came to them.
"The plea that it's critical is just absurd on the face of it," The said. "The parcel tax was invented as an emergency, temporary measure with a sunset clause to account for the Great Recession. I believe that recession is over."
A survey conducted for the board in December showed sufficient support to obtain two-thirds voter approval of the new, increased tax rate, but it also revealed a significant drop in the perception of the district's financial need from similar surveys taken over the last decade. Only 14 percent of survey respondents said they felt the district had a "great" need for more money.
"We're so used to every time there's an increase, it's to fill this hole, just to stay at status quo," Chancellor said. "Those people who were looking for that reason, they weren't going to find it because we're not in a hole. But we're also not flush with $13 extra million without this tax."
Voters have also expressed concern that the district has historically provided a conservative view of school finances by underestimating its property-tax projections, unnecessarily projecting dire fiscal scenarios that haven't materialized. But the district's chief budget officer for the first time this year provided two scenarios for district revenue and expenditures over the next five years: 3 percent growth for all five years and 5.24 percent to 5.46 percent for each year, with the latter being the rate the City of Palo Alto uses in its projections.
Property taxes make up the majority of district revenue at this point in 2014-15, it accounts for 71.5 percent of revenue, Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak told the board in February. Mak has typically used a more conservative 2 percent property-tax increase as her base, though the actual percentage of revenues often turns out to be higher.
Palo Alto Online blogger and government watcher Douglas Moran analyzed the Measure A campaign in an April 17 post.
"The advocates for the parcel tax have done too little regarding the justifications, but the opponents of the tax have provided a variety of small criticisms, but nothing either individually or cumulatively rising to the level of arguing against the need for the tax," he wrote. "I have come to see this election as another instance of bad governance in the school district. Given recent history, one of the key messages of the conduct of this election should have been, 'This is why we are deserving of your trust,' rather than 'You need to trust us.'"
School board President Melissa Baten Caswell said Wednesday that voting down Measure A would have the adverse effect of taking away time and resources from the very issues voters want the board to focus on.
"If we have 7 percent of our budget disappear, our ability to focus on the things that people are calling out as important is going to go down, and that's going to hurt the kids in school," she said.
Some voters have also been concerned about the timing of the early renewal and the $300,000 cost of mounting a special election, but every tax has been brought to voters one year in advance of its expiration, Chancellor said. The earlier election provides the district with ample time to plan and budget for the next school year. However, if Measure A fails to win approval, another attempt is expected prior to the expiration of the current parcel tax, similar to the parcel-tax election that ran in 2005.
The district has a long list of new priorities this year that the tax would support. High on that list are expected recommendations from the superintendent's minority achievement and talent development committee, which for months has been developing both short- and long-term strategies to address the district's achievement gap.
"You can feel that we are trying to address not the low-hanging fruit but some of the high-hanging fruit," Woodham said of the committee's recommendations, expected this spring. "It's been hanging there for many, many years, and we just cannot create the disruption and distraction of having to re-run a parcel-tax measure and again, put these kids on hold for another year. It's just too distractive, and the costs are really too high."
At the elementary level, parcel-tax funding would help pay for additional literacy support from pre-kindergarten through second grade, with the goal of catching struggling students much earlier on in their academic careers.
Parcel-tax dollars would also help to expand the district's summer-school options as well as provide additional nursing staff (there is currently one district nurse who serves the entire system) and family and student counseling at the elementary and secondary levels.
Palo Alto's high school students would see crowding in some electives eased and more programming to support student mental health and wellness. Chancellor and Woodham said the high schools are engaged in ongoing work with Challenge Success, a Stanford University research organization focused on student wellness, to shape some of that programming.
As with past parcel taxes, Measure A proposes that an independent Community Oversight Committee monitor the expenditures, among other accountability methods.
At Tuesday's board meeting, two members expressed trepidation at approving $2.3 million in resource allocations for the 2015-16 school year before the election. Even though those allocations are supported by the district's general fund and not the parcel tax, member Terry Godfrey said the outcome of the election could force a shift in financial priorities.
"We have things that are in the works that we're hoping the parcel tax will fund," Godfrey said. "If the parcel tax doesn't pass, we may still want to do those things, and if we've committed all of our dollars, we're in a bad place."
(The board ultimately approved the funding allocations, which will mostly pay for staffing increases and administrative support, in a 3-2 vote, with Godfrey and member Ken Dauber dissenting.)
The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters mailed ballots earlier this month to the 42,084 registered voters in the school district. The election takes place on May 5, but as an all-mail ballot election, there will be no polling places on Election Day. Ballots returned by mail must be postmarked on or before Election Day and must be received by Friday, May 8 (three days after the election). Ballots that are returned in-person must be received by 8 p.m. on May 5, and can be dropped off at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave. The registrar will also be offering early voting and drive-thru drop-off sites at City Hall on Saturday, April 25 and May 2.
Voter turnout is typically low in mail elections between 35 to 45 percent, according to the registrar.
As of Friday, April 24, 11,502 ballots had been returned, according to the registrar.
More information is available from the Registrar of Voters' Office at 1-408-299-VOTE (8683); toll-free at 1-866-430-VOTE (8683) or sccvote.org.
Palo Alto parcel-tax timeline
June 2001: First parcel tax at $293 rate passes with 75 percent support. Tax is set to last for five years and is fixed with no annual escalator.
November 2004: Attempt to renew early and increase tax to $521 fails to pass.
June 2005: Six-year flat-rate tax of $493 per parcel passes with 73 percent support.
May 2010: Six-year $589 tax with a 2 percent per year automatic escalator passes with 79 percent support. This was the first mail-in special election in Palo Alto.