The early stirrings of conversation about the possibility of a new tax for Castro Valley have begun at the school district, whose finances have been gutted by state failures over the past three years.
A discussion about parcel taxes—which are unlike other kinds of taxes because they can be applied directly to local schools without passing through state hands—is expected to get started "as a discussion item only" at the board's May 26 meeting. Last week, the board listened to an expert give them the highlights of lessons he has learned from past experience helping districts custom-build a tax structure that voters will approve and appreciate.
Latest trend: shifting from 'enrich' to 'something's really wrong'
"The building's on fire and we really have to do something," said consultant Brad Sender, paraphrasing the latest shifts in how schools talk to the voting public.
In the 1980s and 1990s, schools used words like enrich, enhance and strengthen, he said. But since the recession began in 2008 and drastic budget cuts for education followed, schools are saying, "Something's really wrong and we have to try to do something," Sender said.
Piedmont and Menlo Park school districts have levied hefty parcel taxes for many years, helping to explain the high-quality education there.
Castro Valley Unified School District, also an educational gem, so far has managed to avoid parcel taxes through effective management and successful school bond measures, and most recently by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations through grass-roots efforts spearheaded by Save Our Schools Castro Valley.
Good schools make houses more valuable
Last week, Patch reader Michael Kusiak posted a comment tying school performance to property values. "CVUSD is why we bought here, and it's at the core of what makes CV a community," he said.
"As a temporary measure, maybe generating $100 to $300 per household with exemptions for seniors and lower income brackets would be a smart investment to serve as a stopgap until the revenue situation stabilizes," he wrote.
The school board so far is nowhere near proposing a parcel tax, let alone proposing one at that level of detail. At the moment, board members are just listening.
The earliest action would be a decision to survey the community.
"A decision to poll is not a decision to hold an election," Superintendant Jim Negri told board members at their April 14 meeting. Negri has been through "about 10 of these" during his service at other school districts, he said.
Factoids and observations from experience
Here are some of the nuggets of information that Sender left with board members:
- A parcel tax passes with a two-thirds majority, not 55 percent as for bond measures.
- Most (but not all) districts levy a flat fee that stays in place for six to eight years.
- Parcel taxes are unrelated to property taxes in that they are a flat fee, independent of a particular property's value.
- Unlike with bond measures, districts can tailor specifics that will be palatable to voters. For example, seniors can be exempted. Large companies with many parcels can be counted as having a smaller number if the parcels are contiguous. Apartments can be taxed at a lower flat fee.
- Most parcel taxes in the state are in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are few in Southern California and rare in the Central Valley.
- Most parcel taxes start at a modest level of, say, $24 or $42. Over time, as parcel taxes become part of the local culture and residents remain happy with the quality of education, voters readily agree to higher rates on the order of $300, or even as much as $600 in some cases.
- Negative events in a school district's history stay in the public's mind, even if management and quality has been superlative in recent years.
- The Bay Area mindset is generally favorable to parcel taxes because residents appreciate that the money raised here will be spent here, rather than sent to the state for equitable reallocation to all schools.
- Women are more likely than men to favor parcel taxes when the economy is strong, but they are almost as unlikely as men when the economy is weak, as it is now.
- Most surveys are conducted by phone and include 400 people because that number offers a margin of error of 4.5 percent, which is considered standard.
- The surveys cover all types of decision-makers within the school district's boundaries, no matter whether they live in apartments or have children in school.
Sender suggested keeping an eye on the economy. "It does in fact look like it's getting better," he said.
School board member George Granger pointed out that voters have tended to be supportive of schools in times of crisis. For example, a bond measure put on the ballot shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, did better than expected, he said.
"It's scary times for education," Granger said. Districts around the state talk about "falling off a cliff," not "gradual impacts to programs."
Board member Jo Loss said, "I think people are more attuned than ever because the budget cuts have been so severe."