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April 13, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Atherton: Parcel tax support sought from neighbors of Selby Lane School Atherton: Parcel tax support sought from neighbors of Selby Lane School (April 13, 2005)

By David Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

With academic performance indicators up sharply for 2004 at Atherton's Selby Lane School -- a K-8 school with chronic low test scores and a majority of students whose first language is not English -- officials from the Redwood City School District visited Atherton last week seeking support for a parcel tax to maintain Selby Lane's momentum amid concern that state cutbacks will force severe budget cuts locally.

The county Elections Office recently sent mail-in ballots to district homes, including some 700 homes in Lloyden Park and West Atherton. The tax -- called Measure V -- would levy $85 a year per residential parcel and up to $2,500 per commercial parcel to raise $3.5 million in operating funds for the school district. To be counted, the mailed ballots must arrive at the election offices by Tuesday, May 3. At least two-thirds of voters in the district must approve the tax for it to pass.

At a sparsely attended April 7 meeting at Jennings Pavilion in Holbrook-Palmer Park in Atherton, district trustees Christopher Bohl and Dennis McBride reviewed the academic progress district students have been making and the negative impacts should voters reject the tax.

Selby Lane School is located in leafy suburban West Atherton, but most students live in the more urban Redwood City. To attract Atherton students, improve the school's reputation, and raise property values, the Atherton Civic Interest League has been trying to build support for Selby Lane among homeowners in Lloyden Park and West Atherton.

"If you want kids and families to go to your schools, you have to make them attractive," said Mr. Bohl.

Over the last five years, the district has axed $8 million from its budget, but avoided cuts affecting classrooms and special programs. But for 2005-06, "there really isn't anywhere else to go," he said. "We can't run this system on air."

The tax has the support of the Atherton Civic Interest League and the Redwood City Chamber of Commerce.

The Redwood City district is the only elementary school district between Burlingame and Mountain View that doesn't have a parcel tax, Mr. Bohl noted. In 1997 and again in 2002, district voters approved school construction bonds for $44 million and $22 million, respectively.
Paying for programs

The parcel-tax funds would maintain small class sizes and staffing levels for libraries, math and music programs, and gifted and middle-school intervention programs, the trustees said. Although not legally required, the district would assemble a citizens oversight committee to ensure the money is spent as promised.

The money would also help Selby Lane win accreditation for its International Baccalaureate Organization program, a rigorous curriculum for grades 6 through 8 that dovetails with an IBO program at Sequoia High School in Redwood City. Selby officials would like to add an IBO program for the primary grades, too.

"We want to be sure that when you vote for these things, when you buy into these things, these things get done," said Mr. McBride, holding up the list of spending priorities. "This is cast in stone."

A woman in the audience said she was considering moving to the district, but was renting until after the election. She questioned the coincidence of the threat to eliminate programs and a promise to fund them if the tax passes, implying a game of chicken with the voters.

"I can tell you, those programs are gone," said Mr. McBride. "The fundamental issue is that the funding in the state is broken. We just ran out of clever ways to (compensate). ... It's going to be the worst day of my life if this doesn't pass."

"We're down to the bare bones," said Jenny Redo, an Atherton resident and president of the Selby Education Foundation. "If we don't help these schools now, they will be cutting programs crucial to their education."

"The opposition (to the tax) could be apathy," said Atherton resident Bob Jenkins.

Opponents also include Jack Hickey, local Libertarian Party chair. In a letter to the Almanac, he called the measure a "tax grab" and the senior-citizen exemption a "vote buying scam," noting that seniors investing in Redwood City commercial property will still be taxed.
Earning trust

"No one should support public education because it's a so-called good thing," said Mr. Bohl. Not so long ago, the district had teachers who didn't place a high priority on students learning to speak and read in the English language.

"They're gone," he said, adding that kids with academic problems are now identified in the first grade in September and assigned to specialists.

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