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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 23, 2001

EDITORIAL: Parcel tax test faces Palo Altans EDITORIAL: Parcel tax test faces Palo Altans (May 23, 2001)

Community should rally behind proposed $293, 5-year tax to bolster teacher pay -- and give teachers a 'we care' message

Palo Altans have a long, long history of supporting the community's schools.

That tradition will once again be tested on Tuesday, June 5 when district voters go to the polls to decide the fate of Measure D, a "parcel tax" of $293 per year for five years.

The tax requires a two-thirds majority for approval, and no organized opposition has thus far emerged -- no one even submitted a ballot argument opposing it. But that doesn't mean there isn't quiet, individual opposition -- and the tax's broad range of supporters should not be sanguine about the outcome, despite a strongly positive poll the district commissioned last year.

Despite some built-in inequities to the parcel-tax approach -- such as the same tax applying to small residential parcels as to large commercial parcels -- the tax will provide funds that are critically important to the Palo Alto Unified School District: Helping boost teacher salaries without having to face program cutbacks next fall; extending class-size reduction to higher grades in reading, writing and math classes.

Individual sources of opposition include the financial strain some people in town are feeling -- particularly older property owners -- due to the high cost of living, including soaring utility and gasoline costs. But for people who are hurting, there is a no-questions-asked out: Anyone over 65 can simply apply for an exemption at the school-district headquarters with no "means test" of financial status.

Another source of opposition is those who feel the district has badly bungled the Building for Excellence (B4E) program, particularly at El Carmelo School where the mess from a contractor who was unable to do the job still haunts administrators, teachers, students and parents.

There's no question things went wrong at El Carmelo and elsewhere, and we think the district could have done a better, faster job of cleaning up the worst of the mess. But it is faulty logic to hold the entire district responsible for the possible lack of oversight by a few administrators -- even if such a lack were firmly established as the cause of the problem.

It frankly sounds like a glib, easy excuse for voting no without realistically considering the consequences of a defeat for Measure D.

No one really wants to spell out those consequences, and indeed some of the most severe results are probably impossible to predict. The biggest consequence, we believe, will be that teachers throughout the district will take a rejection as a no-confidence vote, or as a statement that the community really does not support their efforts as educators and human beings in a rarified housing market.

The supporters, under the banner of "Quality Schools Committee for Measure D," have chosen to run a strongly positive campaign with a conscious effort to reach out to everyone with the pro-schools message.

Unlike some school districts that kept their special elections on similar proposals quiet -- hoping that predominantly supporters show up at the polling places -- the Quality Schools Committee is beating the bushes for a strong community turnout in order to create a rousing "We care about you" message to the teaching staff.

Conveying that message loud and clear may be the most important component of the vote -- at least as important as the $5.9 million per year the tax is expected to raise during its term.

The tax proponents also have been reluctant to dwell on specific negative consequences of rejection.

School board members have said they would stand behind the 12 percent teacher salary boost made last year, which admittedly was a calculated risk based in part on the gamble that voters would support them this year. Parcel tax funds would allow for a one-time 8 or 9 percent raise this year, which board members said they also would honor -- but at a cost of program cuts.

Likely targets of such cuts would be Advanced Placement foreign-language classes such as German and Japanese, remedial courses with low numbers of students, and teacher-training programs. All of those would do serious harm to the overall excellence of Palo Alto schools, and weaken the district's ability to give students the best shot possible at getting into the colleges and universities of their choice.

All such financing votes are important, but this vote in particular has an urgency given the cost-of-living strain being felt by teachers and the loaded message the vote outcome carries. We urge a 'yes' vote on Measure D.


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