Plans drawn up for school tax battle

by Robb Fulcher
Published February 21, 2008

Two years after Hermosa voters rejected a school bond, parents and other community members are preparing to fight for a ballot measure in June that would impose a new tax for the schools.
The city school board appears all but certain to place a parcel tax measure on the June 3 ballot. The tax would likely be more than $200 a year on each average single family home and other single parcels of city property.

Supporters say the tax is needed to spare parents and “exhausted” volunteers from the burden of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to maintain some math and science classes, low teacher-student ratios for younger kids, and other academic programs in the city’s two California Blue Ribbon schools.

For several years volunteers have flogged large fundraising events and cajoled friends into buying yet more gift wrapping paper, and school parents have been asked to donate as much as $650 a year. Last year the volunteer efforts raised about $860,000, which makes up nearly 10 percent of the city school district’s budget for the current academic year.

A parcel tax is touted by supporters as a way to secure a reliable, predictable source of funds and to spread the cost of the school programs throughout a community that, they say, enjoys high property values, in part because of good schools.

Supporters and school district officials have suggested a tax of about $218 per parcel the first year, rising 5 percent a year to about $264 the final year, raising revenues of about $1.5 million the first year up to $1.8 million the final year. District officials say the increase is meant to keep pace with the cost of the programs, which rise each year.

The school board faces a March 7 deadline to decide whether to place the tax on the June ballot. The board is expected to make a decision at its next regular meeting, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the multipurpose room of Hermosa Valley School, located on Valley Drive north of Pier Avenue.

Campaign ready
As the school board continues to discuss the particulars of the ballot measure, volunteers have begun organizing to carry the campaign to Hermosans, two thirds of whom must vote yes for the tax to be imposed.

With the Measure A school bond defeat two years behind them, and a telephone survey showing support for a parcel tax falling 10 percent below a two-thirds majority, the parcel tax backers have a tangible goal before them.

The supporters, already more than 70 strong, have laid out an ambitious battle plan designed to target parents and likely voters, and get as much information possible to Hermosans at large.

The pro-parcel tax website, maintained by school district parent Jim Caldwell, lays out the ground game:
A “school team” would focus on parents and relatives of students, promote voting by mail, assign campaign coordinators to “track each family” with personal contact via telephone and e-mail.

A “street team” would focus on 300 to 400 likely voters, contacting them with handwritten postcards and phone calls, and offering to help them vote by mail. The street team also would contact Hermosans whose kids have graduated from the city schools, and contact seniors to let them know they could secure exemptions for a parcel tax.

A “sign team,” including kids, would create 500 to 1,000 “obviously hand painted signs” to use in the campaign.

Talking points
Supporters of the parcel tax, both organized and otherwise, say state officials continue to dole out less money to the schools, and many school districts have turned to fundraising and parent donations to try to make up the difference. Hermosa schools face a $14.8 million shortfall for next academic year, and parcel tax supporters say it gets harder to lean on the hardcore volunteers who throw the fundraising events and dun the parents.

Some supporters have attributed the 2006 bond defeat to “distrust” of the school board that built a gymnasium as the centerpiece of an $11 million building with classrooms and a library at the third-through-eighth grade Hermosa Valley School. That construction was funded by a $13.6 million school bond approved by voters in 2002, but the gym was opposed by a group that sued in a futile attempt to block it.

Parcel tax supporters take pains to say that by law, parcel tax money can only be spent on the programs that would be listed in the ballot measure.

An early draft of the potential ballot measure assures that the tax revenues would be used “exclusively” for the academic programs, and “None of the parcel tax revenue will be used to build new classrooms or new structures.”

Supporters also point out that parcel tax revenue would “stay in Hermosa” rather than being shared with the state like ordinary property taxes.

Caldwell says that, compared with seven other area school districts including those in Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes, Hermosa spends the second smallest amount per student, yet earns the highest scores in standardized academic testing.

Speaking up
“I truly believe it’s time to replace parent fundraising with a small tax,” said Hermosa Valley School third grade teacher Kim O’Brien, one of 17 people to speak in support of a parcel tax at a school board hearing last week. Another person supported the tax with reservations, and two spoke against it.

Judging by applause, a vast majority of the 50 or so people in attendance supported the tax.
“Everybody who lives in the community benefits, because [the tax would help] keep property values high. It is not a lot of money,” Carolyn Petty said.

Janene Bozeman, who volunteers on the schools’ PTO fundraising team, said the tax would spare the volunteers from having to scare up money for what she described as vital programs.
“The PTO fundraising would be icing on the cake. Now it’s the cake, and that’s scary,” Bozeman said.

She said the state wants to fund only “reading, writing, ‘rithmetic,” leaving Hermosa on its own to fund its science and other programs. David Adler predicted that state cuts would continue, and the tax represents “our time to come together and face the coming storm.”
However, former school board member Mary Lou Weiss told the current board members that they have not proven themselves good financial stewards, and are trying to fund private school programs with public school dollars.

“When does this board start living within its budget?…You’ve tried to turn this into a private school, and it’s not,” she said.

“I served on a board that made cuts, and it’s not fun. It hurts a lot,” Weiss said. “You need to prove to me that you’re living within your budget, and I know that you’re not.”

Latest cuts
School districts across the state see continued bad news in Gov. Schwarzenegger’s preliminary budget covering the next academic year. Facing a $14 billion state deficit, the governor proposed cuts that would cost the Hermosa district $150,000, according to district officials. In addition, Los Angeles County officials have said they might impose cuts of their own.

Survey says!
A little over 56 percent of likely Hermosa voters supported a parcel tax as of October 2007, according to a telephone survey by Dale Scott & Company of San Francisco. The pollsters claim a 5.6 percent margin of error for the survey of 298 likely voters.

The survey respondents were more inclined to support a parcel tax than to support another school bond. Only 45 percent supported a bond “before information was given,” and the support increased to almost 51 percent “after the voters were educated,” the pollsters wrote in a report to the school board.

The survey respondents’ relative distaste for another bond notwithstanding, Southern California school districts have found parcel taxes more difficult to sell in many cases. A bond attorney for the Hermosa district told the school board his firm has seen more success with bonds than parcel taxes in the region.

The pollsters’ report recommended meetings at schools “to educate the voters on the needs of the district,” meetings with “district stakeholders and opinion makers to gain support,” and possibly revising the parcel tax campaign based on the feedback supporters hear. ER