With a chunk of the parcel tax revenue received by the Menlo Park City School District due to disappear at the end of June 2017, the district's governing board is moving toward holding an election as soon as this May, and may ask voters to approve increasing the tax by about $350 a year.
Property owners in the district now pay four separate parcel taxes three that are permanent and one will expire in 18 months. All four taxes can rise each year by the amount of any increase in the Bay Area Consumer Price Index.
The total for all four parcel taxes, which appear as one on tax bills, is $851.60 for the 2015-16 tax year. The parcel tax due to expire is currently $201.38. The district is considering upping that to $550, which would make the annual parcel tax total about $1,053 per property.
At a Dec. 15 meeting, the district's governing board heard from Ruth Bernstein, a senior principal at EMC Research, who had held two small focus groups about the parcel tax the previous evening.
"Really what we found is great news," she said. The focus group participants "really like this community. They value this community and they value the schools," she said. The voters she talked to "know change is happening" in Menlo Park and "they understand that the responsibility of the schools is to accommodate that."
Ms. Bernstein said "the vast majority of people we talked to last night were in support" of a $550 parcel tax that would have an exemption for seniors. "They recognize the schools are great," she said. "They were very, very positive." The people in the focus group value the schools' "excellent teachers" and "have a lot of trust" in the district, she said. What they are looking for, she said, "is maintaining quality education."
Ms. Bernstein said that the focus group participants also preferred to hear about what the money would be spent on rather than a complex explanation of how growing enrollment and declining outside financial support is affecting the district's bottom line. "Educational outcomes and quality teachers (are) what they are interested in," she said.
Before a measure goes on the ballot, the district must decide not only how much money to ask for, but whether the proposed parcel tax will expire, and, if it does, when.
"We want to be able to keep offering the programs and the services," said board member Terry Thygesen.
A presentation by the district's chief business and operations officer, Ahmad Sheikholeslami, made the district's case for its need for higher revenue.
The district, like the Las Lomitas, Woodside and Portola Valley districts, is funded almost entirely from local sources including property taxes, parcel taxes and donations. Such schools used to be called "basic aid" districts but are now labeled "community funded."
Community funded districts do not get more money when they get more students. In the Menlo Park district, enrollment has grown 38 percent since 2005, when it had 2,133 students. This year the district has 2,940 students. A consultant recently projected that the district will have 3,151 students in 2020 and 3,280 in 2025.
According to the presentation, the district gets only 8 percent of its budget from state and federal funding, 9 percent from donations and 16 percent from the parcel tax. Most of the rest comes from property taxes.
Statistics from the California Department of Education show that the Menlo Park district spends less per student than many other local districts including Woodside, Portola Valley, Las Lomitas and Palo Alto Unified.
"We're doing a lot with a lot less per student," said Ms. Thygesen.
Mr. Sheikholeslami said the district might go into the red if it does not get more funding. "Based on the enrollment projections, we cannot maintain the programs and staff," he said.
The board must take action by Feb. 2 to put a parcel tax on the May 3 ballot. The tax will need a two-thirds vote to pass.
Former board member Scott Hinshaw said he is willing to work on the parcel tax campaign but would need additional help. The current board members cannot campaign for the measure.