Island Talkback: Adam Gillitt on the school parcel tax
By Adam Gillitt
One of the reasons I started getting interested and involved in politics around Alameda was the incredibly acrimonious battle surrounding Measure E. There were reports of supporters physically and verbally threatening opponents, to the point that The New York Times took notice. As I said while campaigning for City Council, it is a sad state of affairs when the local schools have to come to the people, with hat in hand, to make up for the deficiencies of the State.
First off what I find hard to swallow is the concept that the schools are important to everyone equally, yet, some people don’t have to pay, and others don’t have to pay as much. That’s Orwellian double-speak. While it is important to make accommodations for those who are on disability insurance / fixed incomes, to make sweeping exemptions for seniors is unfair. Many people over the age of 60 remain active, fiscally solvent and contribute greatly to the community. If the exemption of seniors is to be on financial terms, then why not make it on terms of employment or income level, instead of age?
Then I have trouble with the allocation of funding that this latest proposed parcel tax is supposed to raise: language like “close the achievement gap” and “Attracting and retaining excellent teachers” making up 40 to 42 percent of the $12 million raises red flags. How is that quantified? Also, it’s 2010, shouldn’t technology and science rate a little more than 5 percent?
With any administrative system, there comes with it years of erosion of policies, from cutting corners here, to looking away there. An example of this: my neighbor went to register her kid for school this September, and when she took him into the office, no one took any time to make sure that they were (still) residents of Alameda.
If there was to be a poll taken of how many students are in the AUSD who are non-resident cousins, nieces and nephews and grandsons and granddaughters, how much of an impact on the AUSD’s budget would it be to not have to support these kids? Or to have them pay their way instead of relying on the generosity of a community that is not their own?
That’s just one example of money that the AUSD doesn’t have to be spending. When was the last time an audit was conducted of the AUSD by someone who was not connected to the district in any way? Superintendent Kirsten Vital’s salary gets a lot of attention and defense; $200,000 is a lot more than teachers make. But on a daily basis, is money being spent wisely? Are we, the taxpayers of California, who invest in school systems all across the state, getting our money’s worth?
Speaking of audits, this Draconian “Plan B” with the combining of schools: why is this only happening now in 2010, 2011 and 2012? The Navy closed up shop in 1997, and the demographics of the City and the services school children need have been shifting ever since then. Why only now is the AUSD realizing this and proposing to combine schools to eliminate underused campuses? There is the additional subtext of the richer, more affluent, East End parents causing a fuss about keeping their “nicer” schools open for their convenience and not having to mix with the West End types by forcing Encinal to become a 7-12 megaschool.
When I lived in the East End, my landlady complained to me about Measure H and how difficult it was going to be for her to raise the rent and pass the cost along to her tenants. That raises an interesting point – many people own just a single or a few rental properties. But what about the major landlords in Alameda, who will benefit from a cap in a parcel tax, and instead of paying 32 cents per square foot, will get down in the range of the Alameda Towne Centre, and pay only one cent per square foot.
Instead of commercial landlords, what about the residential landlords, who have hundreds of tenants, but because of the cap, pay less than their fair share of the parcel tax to fund the schools? Think about who sends kids to schools in Alameda: are they coming from the big mansions along Grand and Fernside that are being taxed the most? Or from highrises and Bayport and Bay Farm and houses near High that are on smaller plots and would contribute less parcel tax? And how much of the burden for kids education is really fair to shift on to Alameda businesses in the first place? It really returns to us in the form of higher costs passed on in higher rents, services charges and other fees that we all shoulder.
Why is additional support for the AUSD supposed to be generated from a parcel tax in the first place? The pat answer seems to be that SCHOOLS ARE A COMMUNITY BENEFIT AND WE MUST HAVE SCHOOLS FOR OUR COMMUNITY.
It seems to be true that public schools are of benefit to the community, and something we all willingly pay taxes to support every year. However, when there is a funding gap between what the local school system needs and what it has, I find it a curious choice to go to property owners as a source of funding, especially when the burden is put most heavily on middle-class homeowners.
All members of the community are certain of needing particular community resources: fire, police and medical. The same cannot be said about the public schools: many people remain single, couples chose not to, or cannot have children, or parents choose private education for their kids. Yet, all taxpayers continue to contribute equally to the support of the public education system.
It’s also true about community recreation facilities- they are available to the public, a benefit to our community, but not always utilized. But, through our tax dollars, they are maintained and available to those who choose to use them, and those who are passionate about them will fight tooth and nail to keep their services available, if not always improving.
I bring up recreation facilities because I have an proposal of how to more fairly distribute the financial burden of the spending gap the AUSD is currently experiencing. Parcel taxes with exemptions and caps are not the way to go, they divide the community, and ultimately fail and leave the AUSD making Doomsday plans. A more plausible scenario involves getting everyone to contribute at a realistic level- everyone gives a little, but those who use the most, provides the most.
This is what I suggest: Commercial parcels contribute $500/annum to the AUSD, with no cap or exemptions. Residential parcels contribute $50/annum. Parents contribute a per-child registration fee to cover books, activities and supplies on a scale between $100-500 per school year, based on grade level. This will be contingent on a thorough outside audit of the AUSD as well as review of enrollment, spending allocation, and other concerns, including verifying actual taxable parcels.
Obviously, this does not jibe with the concept of “free” public school. Nor is it compatible with current legislation. But public school has never actually been free. Rather than pretend it isn’t, why not work to effect a system where those who benefit from Alameda’s schools are in turn the AUSD’s most direct benefactors.
Everyone wants to do what is best for Alameda’s students, so rather than create a system of exceptions and caps, how about a simple, flat and fair system, which will help provide the funding the AUSD feels is so necessary.