Parcel tax readied for final board vote
Alameda’s Board of Education moved forward with efforts to approve a replacement school parcel tax for a March 8 ballot. The board is set to make a final decision on November 30, though it’s not yet clear if they will get the unanimous vote that many in the community seek.
Board members said they’d be willing to move forward with a proposal to charge 32 cents per square foot of building per parcel and a $299 flat rate for parcels without structures on them. And they opted to lower the cap for the tax to $7,999 in an effort to win the support of business owners who wanted a lower cap.
But the proposed spending priorities for the tax provoked a dramatic, late-night horse-trading session between trustee Trish Hererra Spencer and other members of the board, who said they were comfortable with the spending priorities district staff put in place. At several points during the discussion, board vice president Mike McMahon asked Hererra Spencer whether she would vote against the tax if specific changes she requested weren’t made.
“I’m looking for a parcel tax that goes to K through 12. I think it’s very important that we treat all of our students equitably,” Hererra Spencer said.
“I think it’s clear what’s going to happen on November 30,” McMahon shot back. “Let’s move on.”
Hererra Spencer asked for more money for secondary schools, but her dais-mates decided to keep district staff’s proposed spending priorities in place, saying they only had so much money to work with. Their only change was a slight increase in the amount that would allotted for charter schools.
“I think we need to support staff and this community and put this on the ballot and move forward,” Board president Ron Mooney said to applause.
If approved by voters, the taxes would replace the district’s existing Measure A and Measure H taxes, which are set to sunset in 2012. The taxes would be in effect for seven years, beginning on July 1, 2011, and would earn the district about $12.3 million annually.
About a quarter of the tax money would go toward attracting and retaining good teachers, while 15 percent would be allocated to close the district’s achievement gap and 13 percent would pay for small class sizes. Enrichment programs would get 10 percent of the money, while neighborhood elementary schools and secondary school choice and advanced placement programs would get 7 to 8 percent each. Counseling and support services, technology, adult education, high school athletics and charter schools would also receive smaller slices of funding.
The spending priorities – which board and staff members said were put in place at the end of an exhaustive, community-driven process – would remain in place unless the district faces a severe fiscal emergency.
Dozens of the parents, teachers and community members who packed City Hall on Tuesday urged the board to unanimously approve putting the tax on the ballot, saying students can’t do without the small class sizes, neighborhood elementary schools and other programs it would preserve. Some said they feared a fresh tax would be harder to pass without the unanimous assent of the board.
“I own three parcels in Alameda and would gladly pay the tax in order to keep education in Alameda excellent,” said Steve Smith, a former Alameda Unified teacher who has a child at Washington Elementary.
But several parents whose children attend West End and Central Alameda schools expressed frustration over a proposed school closure and consolidation plan that they believe would unfairly impact their children. The plan, which district officials said would be put in place in the absence of a parcel tax, would make Encinal High School a 7-12 combined middle and high school while converting three East End schools to what they saw as superior K-8 schools. A discussion on the plan was postponed as the parcel tax debate slipped on into Wednesday morning.
“There’s always been this annoying perception of differences between East and West in Alameda. But suddenly, this plan makes the differences a concrete reality,” parent Jane Grimaldi said.
Some teachers said they supported the 7-12 plan. And others said they believe the tax is needed despite the perceived inequities.
“Do not allow your concerns around Plan B to be an excuse for not voting for this parcel tax,” Ruby Bridges Elementary PTA president Greg Mauldin told the board.
The handful of business owners who spoke out on the tax offered a split opinion on it – and specifically, on the cap on the amount a parcel owner could be charged.
“I wholeheartedly support this parcel tax,” said Sean Svendsen, who operates Svendesn’s Boat Works, which would benefit from the cap. He commended district leaders for finding middle ground on the tax proposal, which he said was no easy task, “especially when you had such vocal extremists on both sides.”
Ed Hirshberg, who unsuccessfully sued the district to try to invalidate Measure H, said he opposes the cap it would impose. He said the cap would force smaller property owners to pay more money per square foot of building than larger ones.
“Uniformity is not optional. It is a requirement of the law,” he said.
The tax talk came on the same night as a presentation of the district’s proposed three-year budget plan, which showed that Alameda Unified could be facing $12.6 million in cuts by 2012-2013 if the tax doesn’t pass and the state’s fiscal situation continues to deteriorate.
Chief Business Officer Robert Shemwell acknowledged the budget plans, which the school board is set to consider approving on December 14, are a conservative worst-case scenario. For instance, Shemwell held $7.1 million in recently increased state funding out of the budget because the district doesn’t have the money yet – and with the state facing a fresh $25 billion deficit, he’s not convinced they will get it.
The budget plans show the district raising K-3 class sizes to 32 students per teacher, eliminating elementary school music, physical education and media center, closing schools and slashing teacher salaries in the absence of a parcel tax. Even with a parcel tax, the school board could okay cuts that include reducing high school graduation requirements, eliminating seventh period at the Island’s middle schools and maintaining class sizes of 35 to 1 at the high schools – likely eliminating electives – if the state’s finances continue to suffer.
“Eventually, the state budget is going to start moving out of this slump. Things are positive, but they’re not moving fast enough,” Shemwell said.