These are tough times for Alameda schools.
The school district is at this moment facing more than $4 million in budget cuts, per Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s opening salvo in the state’s budget planning process. This follows seven straight years of budget cuts, to the tune of $7.7 million.
For two weeks running, dozens of parents, students and coaches appeared before the school board to beg them not to cut little extras like sports, music and class size reduction – or to shut down entire schools.
So the district is putting its hat in hand for the third time in less than a decade to ask Alamedans to pay a temporary parcel tax: $120 a year for four years for homeowners, and up to $7,500 a year for owners of commercial property. If passed, homeowners would pay a total of $309 a year through 2012.
Not surprisingly, more than a few people object, and some who oppose the cuts are apparently threatening to recall board members over them. But the bottom line is this: The schools are in a bad way, if the governor’s early budget proposal is passed. It’s not really the district’s fault. They do really need the money. And this could be their only opportunity to get it.
Alameda isn’t the only district staring down a budget black hole if this plan is passed. School districts up and down the state are crying foul over Schwarzenegger’s plan to cut $4+ billion from schools, because they, too will be forced to make millions in cuts. Ted Lempert, a former state legislator and current president of Children Now, a nonprofit advocacy group, says it’s fair to characterize this as the worst education budget ever, due mostly to the size of the cuts proposed. He said districts and other schools advocates expected cuts, but nobody saw this coming.
Proposition 13 killed about 60 percent of school districts’ property tax revenue, and so all but about 60 of the state’s 1,000 school districts rely on the state to fill the void. A parcel tax is, unfortunately, the only legal way they can raise extra cash when the state falls down on the job.
There are people who feel the district is somehow squandering money. But the truth is, Alameda just doesn’t have as much of it as a lot of other California districts. Alameda gets less money per student than any other district in the county, and less than the state average – which in turn is less than what districts across the majority of the nation get.
As to the contention that the district needs to cut its bloated administration to balance the budget? Alameda spends less money on administration per student than 10 of 11 similar districts in the state, and less than most districts in the county, according to 2005-06 numbers from the Education Data Partnership, an online group helmed by the state education department. The tax ballot language specifically prohibits funds from paying administrators’ salaries.
We have smaller class sizes than most other districts in the county. But our teachers earn less than others with the same training everywhere in the county but Oakland. Teachers at the top paid district in the county, Pleasanton, earn over $20,000 more, Education Data Partnership statistics from 2005-06 show.
Public services cost money. But the truth is, some people simply don’t want to pay.
This parcel tax is not a perfect solution to the schools’ budget woes; if it were, the school board would only have had to ask for it once. But they are not the enemy for asking. Yes, it could be applied more fairly so that seniors who can afford to pay do; so people who live in or own apartments pay their fair share; so people who live in “Gold Coast estates,” as one writer to Lauren Do’s Blogging Bayport Alameda blog put it, pay more than those in smaller homes; so it would be permanent, letting voters feel like the schools are taken care of, instead of feeling like they are constantly being nickel and dimed.
The real problem is our failed system of state control over school financing and the disastrous run of Proposition 13, which has presided over the decline of California’s schools. Anybody care to fix that?
For more information on school finance and the trouble California’s school districts are facing, and what you can do to help: