The ABCs of Measure C
Voters will decide on parcel tax to benefit students in the San Ramon Valley school district
Voters living in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District have a decision to make regarding the future of their schools. More than 80,000 ballots have been delivered to homes in the district, asking voters whether they would be willing to increase their property taxes in order to maintain the dollars being put toward school funding in the face of large-scale budget cuts by the state.
That parcel tax measure, dubbed Measure C, has been placed on the ballot as a special mail-in-only election in the school district. It will replace Measure A, the parcel tax approved in 2004 that is set to expire June 30. The current tax requires owners of each parcel of land to pay an annual fee of $90.
Measure C asks residents to approve going from $90 per year to $144 per year, an increase of $4.50 per month or 62.5 percent, according to the ballot language.
Parcel taxes are a relatively new phenomenon in the San Ramon Valley school district; officials say events that occurred 30 years ago paved the way to the necessity for schools to go to the voters seeking funding assistance.
The so-called "Taxpayer Revolt" of the late '70s led to the passage of California's Proposition 13, legislation that would cap property taxes at 1 percent of the value of a home. That value can be increased by 2 percent each year or by a larger amount if the home is sold.
At the same time, the proposition also limited the California legislature from enacting any new taxes unless ratified by a two-thirds majority vote. In addition, any special taxes that would be enacted in local jurisdictions must be approved by that supermajority. Ironically, on June 6, 1978, the legislation itself was passed by only a 66 percent majority.
School district spokesman Terry Koehne referred to Prop 13 as a precursor to the current economic hardship facing the state of California.
"Since Proposition 13 passed, education funding in this state has declined. There has been exponentially less revenue from property taxes going into the state of California, which has meant a significant decline in education funding," he explained.
Education funding accounts for around 40 percent of the state's annual budget. As the deficit has grown over the years to the point where the funding gap was measured in billions of dollars, cuts were made across the board, further reducing the dollars coming to education.
In addition, the San Ramon Valley district was dealing with the added restriction of being considered a "low wealth" district, according to state funding formulas. As a result, the district receives lower per pupil funding than other districts of similar size. SRVUSD receives $5,725 per student, while Pleasanton Unified receives $6,347 and Dublin Unified receives $6,560.
These factors led SRVUSD to attempt its first parcel tax Nov. 4, 2003. The district attempted to pass a measure to call for an annual $90 parcel tax. It failed, receiving 65.3 percent of the vote.
The following year led to another attempt, Measure A, which was approved with 72 percent of the vote on April 13, 2004. It is that tax, set at $90 per month, which will expire June 30.
Seeing further cuts in funding from the state, the SRVUSD school board in 2008 went back to voters with Measure D, intended to pick up where Measure A left off, as well as increasing the funding in order to make up for shortfalls coming from declining state revenues.
Measure D, dubbed the "Excellence in Education Act," asked voters last June to approve a parcel tax of $166 per year. The measure targeted specific areas that would be funded with the revenue from the tax. Those included fifth-grade instrumental music, libraries at the middle and high schools, counselors at the middle and high schools, and smaller class sizes K-3 and for ninth-grade math and reading classes.
Despite a strong effort by a core group of parents and educators, the measure was defeated on June 3, 2008, with 64 percent of the 67 percent necessary to pass.
Following the defeat, school board members held off making the decision to again go to the voters. Over the summer they considered the issue, analyzing the campaign. In the fall of 2008, the board hired consultant TBWB to look at the possibility of moving ahead with another ballot measure.
It wasn't until nearly the end of 2008 that the decision was made and the district moved ahead with putting Measure C on the ballot. Several hearings were held on the issue, pulling in information from parents as well as the consultants on how to proceed. Despite some arguments calling for a higher amount, the school board approved asking for $144 per year.
Other changes were made as well, one of those being ballot language. While Measure D targeted specific items to be funded, Measure C's language takes a broad spectrum approach. The question reads, in part, "To help maintain academic excellence, retain qualified and experienced teachers, prepare students for college and careers for a global economy with strong math, science and literacy education."
During the Measure D campaign, opponents of the parcel tax voiced concerns regarding how the funds would be allocated and calling for transparency and accountability in the spending of taxpayer dollars. As a result, the district added language to guarantee that no parcel tax monies would be used for administrator salaries and also calling for annual audits and the creation of a citizen oversight committee.
Spokesman Koehne said the reason the measure is broader in scope is that with the seven-year duration of the measure there is concern about what would happen if state revenues continue to dwindle.
"From Year 1 to Year 7, your priorities can change," he explained. "While we understand that this may not be palatable to the voters, the fact is if you choose to lock yourself into a specific program you are locked in. If the economy gets worse and the rest of the district starts to crumble, we'll have to keep funding that program at the expense of all others."
In seeking transparency, Measure C campaign officials say they are reaching out more to the public to get the information disseminated. Campaign co-chairwoman Denise Jennison said that they have sent out mailers and used phone banks to discuss the issues with voters in the district.
"We are doing what we can to make sure people know about Measure C and why we are doing this," she said. "There is a lot of misinformation out there and we want people to have the facts."
Organizers especially are stepping up their efforts to let seniors know that residents 65 and older are exempt from the parcel tax. Koehne said that they have been getting calls regarding the effect of the tax on seniors living on fixed incomes.
"Many of them know there's an exemption," he said, "but don't know how to go about getting it."
Koehne said they merely have to fill out the senior exemption form, which is on the district Web site, and provide proof of age and residence, usually in the form of a driver's license, and a property tax bill. Koehne added that those seniors who are already exempt from Measure A will also be exempt from Measure C without having to reapply.
Opponents of Measure C say the district does not need more money, pointing to more than $12 million in reserves. Some argue that the district is underestimating student enrollments for next year in order to create a shortfall in per student funding.
District Assistant Superintendent of Business Gary Black said there is some truth to what opponents say regarding the reserves.
"Yes, this district has some wise and prudent stewardship from the school board," he said. "We have built up a significant reserve that will allow this district to weather this economy better than other districts."
Black explained that the board will use those reserve funds to fill in holes left in the budget by shortfalls that are expected even if the parcel tax passes.
If Measure C passes, it will generate $7 million. Currently, the district is facing cuts in the neighborhood of $16 million.
Black disagreed that the district has presented any population estimates with an eye toward creating a false shortage.
"There is no benefit to under or overestimating student enrollment," he said. "If we underestimate and there's more students they will go into available classroom space. If we overestimate and there's not as many students, then we have paid for classroom space that isn't being used."
Measure C's fate will be decided May 5, when the Contra Costa County Clerk's office counts up the mail-in ballots for the special election. Both sides of the issue are rallying their supporters and reminding them to mail their ballots prior to May 1.
School District officials have already scheduled a meeting for May 6 to begin discussions of what their next step will be, depending on the outcome of the special election. But first the voters will speak.