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January 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 28, 2005

District ready to roll the dice again District ready to roll the dice again (January 28, 2005)

School board leaning toward parcel tax election in June

by Alexandria Rocha

Despite a discouraging response from local voters, the Palo Alto school district is hoping to put a new parcel tax initiative on a June ballot that isn't much different from the measure that was narrowly rejected in November.

The new initiative would ask voters to increase a current parcel tax from $293 per year to $493 for a term of six years.

The amount is $28 per parcel less than what voters turned down in the last election. The other option was a tax of $465 per year, but board members said that amount would not solve the district's budget woes.

"I support the $493 because I believe it allows us to restore the barest minimum," said board member Cathy Kroymann.

School officials hope the proposed tax would offset a list of severe possible cutbacks, including the closure of one elementary school and the loss of more than 80 teachers. The district's class-size reduction program would also be on the chopping block.

The district's current parcel tax, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2001 and generates $5.5 million in revenue each year, is set to expire in 2006. If a substitute revenue source is not found, the district maintains it would be forced to slash its programs and staff.

Critics, however, continue to say the district is not being clear enough about which programs need funding and why.

"The presentation given to the school board was more detailed than last. It still lacked a lot of hard data to provide evidence for lack of revenue generation," said city watchdog Wayne Martin, who led the campaign against the district's measure in November.

"If there is evidence for these things we would consider funding them," he added.

The district's situation comes on the heels of Measure I, which asked voters to raise the current parcel tax to $521 per year. The measure needed two-thirds, or 66.67 percent, of the voters' approval to pass. It failed by less than 1 percent.

At a meeting two weeks ago, the board backed off from a $493 tax figure because of risky results from a voter survey -- only 68 percent of the 400 polled said they would support a tax of that amount.

The board asked the district's polling consultant, Gene Bergman, to find an amount with greater community support.

"We believe it will take a correspondingly significant reduction in the tax rate, approaching or perhaps even below the $450 level," Bergman wrote in a memo to Superintendent Mary Frances Callan.

But after hearing Bergman's findings, board President John Barton and members Gail Price and Cathy Kroymann said the district's need is too significant to go below a $493 per year parcel tax.

Mandy Lowell, the board's vice president, said she would back either amount and member Camille Townsend outwardly favored the lower tax.

"I feel that's acceptable to people, although I feel we can use every bit. We don't all have the same amount of money," said Townsend, who by the end of the discussion was supportive of the higher amount.

"I will pay it because my husband and I are doing well because of the public schools," she added.

Chuck McDonnell, president of local chapter of the California School Employees Association, also presented survey results at Tuesday night's meeting.

Of 190 classified employees polled, 92 percent said they would renew the current parcel tax of $293 per year and 88 percent said they would vote for an increased amount.

McDonnell wanted to show that although many of the classified employees struggle to make ends meet, they are willing to support the district's efforts.

The board's decision on the amount and length of a parcel tax measure will not be final until its meeting on Feb. 8, when there will be a public hearing. If the district can't get a measure approved in June, its last chance will be in November.

The cost of a special election is not pocket-change either -- a June election could cost the district between $377,000 to $486,000.

Lowell, who said she would defer "to other people's judgment" on which tax amount to pursue, she did indicate favoring the $465 tax.

"I worry about the less affluent people," she said. "Someone said this is like three really nice dinners. You know for some, this isn't three really nice dinners."

Staff writer Alexandria Rocha can be reached at [email protected]

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