Thoughts on a Parcel Tax

I’ve spent a great deal of time working to understand the issues facing public schools in Scotts Valley and thinking about the options available to the community to mitigate the budget crisis. Throughout the process I’ve gathered and published answers to many questions, attended many meetings, spoken with lots of people and given the variety of socio-economic hurdles we currently face I’m struggling to justify continuing to push forward with a parcel tax proposal. Here are the factors that I see affecting these efforts:

  • Economic Climate
    California voters nearly unanimously rejected new taxes by defeating16 of 18 parcel taxes this past election and neither the economy nor voter sentiment can be expected to improve measurably in the immediate time frame currently under consideration for SVUSD (first half of 2010).
  • State budget crisis
    The state of California is in the midst of a fiscal disaster further complicated by a flawed public school financing and unless the Federal Government comes to the rescue yet again no reasonable person can assume Sacramento is going to “right the ship” any time soon. The situation is further exacerbated by the pending changes in Sacramento where turmoil is likely to rule the day. Forecasting the projected need becomes a dart game which doesn’t help when you’re trying to explain to voters why you need the amount you’re asking for. At the end of the last school year we were discussing a $950K shortfall for two consecutive years, with the new state “budget” that number has decreased by over $100K based on imaginary figures from our governor and legislature.
  • Community Apathy
    Having put in many hours attending a wide variety of meetings, building this website and setting up Organizing for Scotts Valley Schools I’ve come to realize while people are concerned about class sizes my sense is this crisis hasn’t reached beyond a fleeting interest for a majority of people. Over the last two weeks the school district held five very lightly attended community meetings to engage and educate Scotts Valley residents a fact that does not bode well despite district wide email and newspaper advertising. Likewise many, if not most of the meetings I attend draw a small group of usual suspects, an issue often raised, which speaks to people’s overall level of interest.
  • Competing interests
    There are various organizations associated with the district’s four schools essentially competing for the same fundraising dollar. Naturally parents are more likely to donate to their child’s school for supplies and programs like art, music and sports often to the detriment of the SVEF or the District itself.
  • Lack of financial transparency
    With four schools in SVUSD there are, at a minimum, five organizations (PTA’s and SVEF) with five separate balance sheets not readily available to the public via the web or other medium. The lack of transparency makes it difficult at best to understand the flow of dollars at the various schools. One issue this raises is that many times people are confused regarding which organization they should donate to especially when site specific fundraising overlaps with district wide efforts such as Dollar-A-Day (DAD).
  • Guidance from the District
    While I’ve attended numerous meetings where the Administration has laid out a thoughtful and considered presentation on its financial state there seems to be a dearth of guidance as to how the community should or could approach tackling the problems at hand. Public school financing is so overly complicated reliance on those with deep knowledge of the subject seems critical and I’d like to see the district take a more proactive approach to guiding community efforts surrounding a parcel tax or other fund raising efforts. This could be a catch-22 considering the third bullet item above.
  • Ongoing perception of poor communication
    Unfortunately, the perception persists that communication is inadequate. In some cases this is threaded into the fabric of the district as a result of union contracts and things such as adherence to rules dictating decorum at public meetings. Although again, I’d refer back to bullet item 3 above. It’s hard to spark conversation with an apathetic audience.

It’s hard to imagine a more adverse set of circumstances under which to move forward with a parcel tax initiative. Last May/June I was buoyed by the fact a parcel tax could serve as a viable bridge to better times but the last several months have curtailed that optimism. While I continue to believe a parcel tax is the only viable avenue large enough to thwart further cuts the required 66 2/3% seems unfortunately beyond grasp until at least some of the above items are resolved.

Where do things stand

At this point, the district has been asked to price a professional community-centric poll which would run in the range of $10-20K. The results of the poll are intended to help guide the Board in determining whether or not to move forward, test ballot language, set an amount and gauge community sentiment. In addition to polling costs placing a measure on the  ballot isn’t free and would likely run into the thousands if not 10’s of thousands. My understanding is the district would spend upwards of $30-40K to get a measure in front of voters. The number would vary depending on the type of survey conducted and type of ballot used (mail-in vs. polling place) and although these funds could come from outside the district it’s difficult to assume the community could find alternative funding to hit a February 4th cutoff date for the earliest possible vote in 2011.