Before the Palo Alto school board voted this summer to place a parcel tax renewal on the November ballot, a consultant warned that mounting a significant advocacy campaign would be crucial to its passage given the high-stakes distractions of the coronavirus, school closures and a presidential election.
The board decided to put Measure O on the Nov. 3 ballot partially out of concern that it might not pass the first time. This gives the district one more shot — though a risky one — at approval in spring 2021, just months before the $836 per parcel tax is set to expire in June.
If approved, Measure O would extend the tax for six years at the same rate. It provides about $15.6 million annually to the district to support hiring and retaining teachers, keeping class sizes small, offering a wide range of electives and employing mental health counselors and reading specialists, among other areas.
The "Yes on O" campaign team has been attending Zoom PTA meetings and distributing lawn signs and mailers in the hopes of getting the word out about what's at stake, particularly to voters without children in Palo Alto public schools, if the parcel tax doesn't pass. According to the campaign, if the parcel tax fails, about 100 teachers, as well as counselors and other staff, could be laid off.
"Palo Alto Unified schools would look unrecognizable next year without it," said parent Robyn Reiss, a Measure O campaign committee member. "The class sizes would balloon. Lots of electives would be cut. It would just feel like a different district."
Polling conducted this summer suggests that the parcel tax's path to approval could be rocky. Interviews conducted in June for the district by Gene Bregman & Associates, a public opinion and market research firm, showed that 62% of voters would support renewing the parcel tax — short of the two-thirds (66.7%) required to pass. That percentage rose just above the two-third threshold (to 70%) when voters were told the reasons to support the parcel tax and dropped to 67% when they were then told reasons for opposing the measure.
The official rebuttal against Measure O, filed as in past years by the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, argues that "This is not the time for 'taxation as usual.'
"Individuals, households and businesses have all had to adapt to this crisis by cutting costs and being more careful about spending their limited funds on only the most essential activities.
School boards need to do their share by focusing their efforts on controlling costs and by prioritizing only the most essential things," the rebuttal states.
School board President Todd Collins, who has been campaigning for Measure O in his personal capacity, said if Measure O fails in November, the board will immediately have to decide whether to mount the parcel tax again in either March or May. There would also likely be debate over whether the decision should be delayed until whoever is elected to the board takes office in December, he said.
Both of the ballot options — in March and May — butt up against the district's budget adoption timeline in ways that would put pressure on both staff and the board, Collins said. Any staff members who may be laid off have to be notified with pink slips by March 15. If the parcel tax is on the early March ballot, pink slips might not have to be sent out but the board would still have to prepare budget cuts in case the measure failed. If the parcel tax is on the May ballot, pink slips would have to be sent out to teachers and staff members in March.
"If we miss in the fall, the board's going to spend its time not figuring out what to do after we start recovering from COVID but instead figuring out how to cut $16 million from the budget," Collins said. "That's an all-consuming task, not just for the board but for the whole organization."
If the parcel tax fails, the board would be tasked with considering whether to draw down on reserves to lessen the financial blow or to adjust the budget to a lower level of funding, with consequences for class sizes, support services and non-core courses like art and music that Collins called "dire."
"Everything would be on the chopping block and much of it would be cut back," he said.
Some community members have questioned why the parcel tax is needed at this level when enrollment is declining in the district. Enrollment has declined by about 5% in the last five years.
Collins said the district decided to keep the rate the same for this exact reason; past parcel tax renewals came with increases of about 20%.
With less than a month until Election Day, Measure O has surpassed its fundraising goal with about $112,000, including pledged donations.
If approved, Measure O would continue an optional exemption for seniors ages 65 and older and low-income people with disabilities. It would also continue the 2% annual inflation increase. The measure requires annual audits and an independent oversight committee made up of local community members who review and publicly report on the use of the funds.
By law, parcel tax funds can only be used for voter-approved purposes, which in this case doesn't include administrator salaries, for example.
Palo Alto voters first approved the parcel tax in 2001 and renewals in 2005, 2010 and 2015. The parcel tax has failed once, in 2004, when it coincided with a general election and the district asked for a significant increase.
Read the Santa Clara County Voters Guide on Measure O:
Find more election coverage on the Palo Alto Unified School District here.