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November 11, 2009 > School board and City discuss possible parcel tax

School board and City discuss possible parcel tax

By Dustin Findley

Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) Superintendent Karl Black told the school board, at the October 27 meeting, that one of the district's strategic goals is to increase funding.

The district hired Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, & Associates Inc. to conduct a survey of registered voters regarding a possible parcel tax initiative. The firm interviewed a sample of 406 voters between October 2 and October 6 over the telephone. There is a 4 percent-margin of error.

Generally, voters are positive about the City's overall direction, school district and, specifically, the board of education. Most of the survey's participants think, as they did in 2006, the district provides high-quality education and is fiscally responsible though a sizeable majority, 59 percent, feels Milpitas schools need more funding. One in five people rated the education as "not so good" or "poor."

62 percent of the sample supports a hypothetical parcel tax of $110 per year. This falls short of the 67 percent (or two-thirds majority) required to pass in an election. Math, science and engineering education are priorities for many who approve of the tax. Other important issues include manageable class sizes, student safety, maximizing the number of days for instruction and maintaining middle school electives. Economic conditions and the potential for other revenue-measures to be placed on the ballot concern voters.

The survey gives the district some insight about the public perception of funding.

One in 20 of the survey's participants feel the district has more money than it needs, a 27 percent drop from the 2006 survey, compared with a 10 percent increase in the number of people who feel the district is under-funded. The district's communication with the community about budget cuts and public awareness of state cuts to education may account for the increase.

Researchers posed a question resembling what might appear on the ballot - describing where the money might go, used to maintain a variety of education programs in local schools, a parcel tax of $110 per year, with annual audits, exemptions for seniors and citizen oversight.

Supporters of a parcel tax feel more funding is needed and place great store by education, especially in local schools. Opponents are concerned about taxation and wish to avoid further financial burden during an economic downturn. Support for the hypothetical tax increased as the amount decreased from $110, to $90, to $75.

Statistically, there is no significant variance between responses when considering a term of five or 10 years for the tax. Similarly, the timing of an election, either June 2010 or November 2010, made little difference to respondents.

The researchers supplied their sample electorate with statements that might be heard, for and against the parcel tax, during a campaign. The one that proved most persuasive for a YES vote identified protection and maintenance of core science, math, technology and engineering programs. The importance of good schools for the community's well-being is a compelling issue.

Voters were persuaded to vote NO when statements highlighted current economic conditions and the possibility of other bond- and tax-measures on the ballot.

After hearing arguments in favor of a parcel tax, support rose to 68 percent. After listening to arguments against, it fell to 66 percent which is closer to the two-thirds threshold needed to pass.

Structural elements that might increase support include a $100 cap, concerted outreach to educate voters about what is at stake if schools are not better funded, focus on the core priorities of math, science and technology, placing the need for extra funding in the context of the state budget and the impact it has had on education locally and a supportive parcel tax coalition.

The school board will discuss how to proceed in January.

The school district may not fund or participate in a campaign. Monies must be raised privately by a campaign committee or coalition. School district staff, including board members, can only campaign on their own time, not when being paid by the district.

Black informed school district and City representatives on November 4 the district faces a $3M deficit for the school year 2011-12, if nothing changes, i.e. no further budget cuts nor any improvements. The district's reserves will have been depleted. The board is considering a measure for the June 2010 ballot before serious cuts must be made.

"We've cut $3M in the last two years. $10M since 2002" Black said.

Vice-Mayor McHugh suggested exploring a parcel tax-joint venture between the school district and the City. A task force will determine feasibility of a parcel tax, the rate(s), which City parcels and which school district parcels would be subject to the levy to satisfy their respective needs. McHugh would like Council to discuss the matter on November 17.

City Manager Tom Williams said the City might consider raising $60,000 through the parcel tax for parks and recreation maintenance. This would increase the tax rate by $10 depending on the number of parcels taxed. Originally, the district envisaged taxing around 15,000 of its parcels at $100 for a total of $1.5M annually.

A joint venture between the City and the school district might elicit greater support for a parcel tax measure.

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