parcel tax for high schools

At its meeting on June 12, the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) board voted unanimously to place a new parcel tax measure before the voters next year.

Residents of the high school district have been paying a parcel tax in one form or another to support the high schools since 1993. The most recent parcel tax, passed in 2012, brings in over $1.2 million, but that parcel tax is expiring in 2021.

According to figures from Chief Budget Officer Mary Schafer, a new and higher parcel tax is critical to the district’s solvency.

At its March 6 meeting, the board authorized Isom Advisors to do a survey to explore the feasibility of a new local parcel tax. The point of the survey was to test public support for a new parcel tax and get a sense of just how much local ratepayers might be willing to pay.  

At the meeting last week, Greg Isom presented the results of the survey, which included responses from 400 local households.

Of the people polled, 72.3% indicated that they’d vote yes on a parcel tax if the election was held today and 82% of respondents agreed that “Because the state continued to limit funding for public education, local voters need to do more to protect the quality of education in their local public schools.” 

“I think this is great news for your school district if you’re looking to raise the amount of the parcel tax,” Isom said.

How to spend the money

In asking residents what they’d like to see the parcel tax spent on, Isom took the language from the 2012 parcel tax and broke it up into separate spending priorities. Survey respondents’ top five choices were as follows:

• Maintain and improve the schools’ shop, culinary, technology and other career education programs.

• Keep the school’s libraries open.

• Maintain and improve the school’s art, music and drama programs.

• Maintain small class sizes.

• Maintain student counseling services.

Survey respondents rated the latter two — small class sizes and counseling services — as more important than they had in previous years, and Isom said he would change the language of the new parcel tax to reflect that.

Board member Kellie Noe asked Isom about the possibility of including raises for teachers as a part of the parcel tax. 

“I was intrigued by the shift in perception around using the parcel tax around raises, which is something we have not historically done, but there seems to be a change in that area so I want to have some discussion about that.”

Isom agreed discussion would be good but told a cautionary tale about including raises in the parcel tax.

“So what happened in LA Unified is they had all these teachers that weren’t getting their raises, but public opinion came in saying ‘You’ve got to support the teachers.’ So they gave the teachers the raises, then did a parcel tax, and it seemed like everyone was rallying around it. Then the parcel tax got obliterated,” Isom said. “They got something like 48% when the survey said they’d get 69%.”

“So the lesson there is don’t commit money before it’s in the bank,” Noe said.

How much is too much

The survey also looked at how much people might be willing to pay. Survey respondents were presented with parcel tax rates, ranging from the current $48 a year to $88 a year. Unsurprisingly, the higher the parcel tax, the lower the support.

Parcel tax       Leaning Yes        Leaning No

$88                 66%                26%   

$78                 69%                23%

$68                 74%                18%

$58                 78%                15%

$48                 77%                15%

Isom said he was “leaning toward a $72 number” because he thought that’s the highest number the voters would support and “because it’s easy math” (i.e. divides easily by 12 so the measure can be advertised as just $6 a month).

Laying out a strategy

Isom said he feels the survey represents the “average Joe community member,” but he also advised the board to reach out to key influencers in the community.

“There’s 10 to 20 key people inside your district boundaries that we need to reach out to and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re thinking of doing and why. If we go for this amount, will we have your support?

“The only reason we would lower the number was if you were getting push back from your key stakeholders … but I believe your stakeholders are going to come back supporting a number in the 70s,” Isom said.

Isom laid out this timeline: “Approve a resolution in November if you you’re going to go for March of 2020. That gives you a couple of weeks to make sure everything is turned in on time and there are no screw-ups. The discussions with the key stakeholders should be taking place now until September.”

He agreed to come up with the initial language for the parcel tax and submit that to the board for review and tweaking.

Isom said the strategy behind placing the measure on the March 3, 2020 ballot is to time it with the primary election, when fervor over Democratic candidates will theoretically be at their highest. 

“My strategy in 2020 …  is, ‘Let them bring your voters to the polls,’” Isom said, noting that this strategy may change if the political situation changes dramatically in some way.

Everyone on the board and in the administration agreed that at this point a parcel tax is essential to the financial health of the district.

Chief Budget Officer Mary Schafer introduced budget numbers later in the evening showing that even with a $48 parcel tax, the district would be almost $500,000 in the red in the 2021-22 school year, due to declining enrollment. A higher parcel tax would edge the district into solvency, just barely.

“We all know that we kind of don’t have a choice to have it not pass,” board member Jeanne Fernandes said. “We have got to get the support out there.”

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