San Mateo Daily Journal: School districts seek taxes

Two local school systems are seeking tax measures which advocates claim are essential to stabilize the financial footing of the cash-strapped districts, while tax opponents consider the initiatives unnecessary and undeserved.

The San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District is seeking to fill a budget gap by gathering support for Measure V, a $298 parcel tax, while the San Bruno Park Elementary School District is aiming to finance a facilities overhaul with pursuit of Measure X, a $79 million bond.

Tax advocates from both district consider the local support necessary, while members of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association suggest neither district has accomplished enough to earn voter support for the additional financing.

Measure V

“We continue to be — and historically, this has been the case — underfunded,” said Joan Rosas, superintendent of the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.

To illustrate her position, Rosas said the district is facing a $5 million deficit which will likely require programmatic reductions should the tax, expected to generate $10 million annually, fails.

The tax, proposed to span nine years, will require two-thirds voter approval to pass, and seniors can request an exemption from paying. Polling conducted earlier in the year suggested 69 percent of voters in the upcoming election would support the initiative. An attempt to extend a previous parcel tax fell merely a percentage point short of the threshold for approval.

The defeat resulted in the loss of about $7 million annually, which officials have since scrambled to replace.

The taxpayers association, which regularly opposes measures across San Mateo County, claims the district should improve its performance before voters support the measure.

“If you reward failure, you will get more failure,” according to the association’s opposing argument filed with county’s Elections Office.

Alternatively, if the tax fails, Rosas said officials will face hard decisions to trim core programs and potentially staff to balance the budget. The variety of specific cuts are yet to be identified, but she added the potential revenue for the district could provide a funding source for essential resources.

“The measure would come in to cover the deficit and provide additional revenue for staff compensation and provide funding for our arts, [science, technology, engineering and math] programming and some of the things that people appreciate and want in our district,” said Rosas.

Should the measure pass, a portion of it the money would be reserved for a 2 percent teacher salary hike as well, noted school board Vice President Shara Watkins.

“This is something very innovative and revolutionary, in our thinking,” said Watkins, when detailing the differences between the current parcel tax proposal and the previous failed attempt.

The measure, if approved, would be the second of its kind in the district, as a perpetual $104 parcel tax passed in 1991 generates about $3.5 million annually. The district’s other parcel tax expired as the previous measure failed before voters. The district also passed a bond in 2015 paying for the construction of new classrooms to address overcrowding.

Considering the perceived wealth of district resources, tax opponents encourage officials to be more thoughtful in their spending before asking for more tax dollars.

“Tell the school board to be more fiscally responsible by voting no on Measure V,” according to the argument.

Meanwhile, measure supporter Katherine Goodman said the county’s largest district already struggles to assure each student enjoys equal educational opportunities and suggested a defeat of the tax would compound those issues.

“There is already limited opportunities for students and we don’t want to make that worse,” she said.

Measure X

In San Bruno, officials are seeking the bond measure as a key leg of an effort to overhaul district facilities and move away from a neighborhood school system to one with larger, central campuses.

The tax is necessary to help modernize and renovate the campuses which will serve the next generation of students in a district traditionally starved for adequate financing, said tax campaign chair Kathy Cannon.

“We have kids in these amazing schools with great teachers and great leaders, but the facilities tend to be falling apart,” she said.

The initiative, which would need 55 percent voter approval to pass, aims to generate revenue which will be reserved for rebuilding and renovating campuses, as bonds can only pay toward district facilities.

The taxpayers association claims the district has not shown enough fiscal responsibility to be trusted with the financing potentially generated by the measure.

“Vote no on Measure X to stop this fiscal insanity,” according to the argument filed with the county.

Alternatively, former San Bruno mayor Jim Ruane said he believes the measure is needed to offer the district some financial relief.

“Those teachers and those kids deserve this,” he said. “It’s been pretty tough over the past few years.”

The hardship to which he refers largely stems from financial issues, as the district has repeatedly approached work stoppages with its teaching union due to frustrations about inadequate pay. Concerns around financial insolvency grew so severe that the county Office of Education intervened to oversee district finances.

In tandem with the bond measure, officials plan to shutter and sell campuses in an effort to raise additional money and consolidate schools. Critics of the plan suggest the sold property may hamstring the district from accommodating future enrollment growth.

But advocates note the campuses potentially rebuilt with the bond and sales revenue will preserve space for additional students.

“We have no plan to max out our schools right away,” said Cannon.

The focus on facilities is unfounded, claim tax critics, who believe officials should aim to assure student perform is improved.

“Focus on classrooms’, students’ and teachers’ needs, not buildings,” according to the ballot argument.

Meanwhile, Cannon said she sees the tax as an initial step toward a brighter future for the district.

“A bond measure is something we can get community support for. It’s a first step and part of a overall vision that the superintendent has,” she said. “It just really makes sense.”

Support Measure V and an excellent education for all SMFCSD kids