The Almanac has traditionally supported local school districts' efforts to fortify their funding through parcel taxes a revenue boost made necessary over the years by increasingly unreliable funding from the state.
That support has been steady, even as we began to see a troubling trend on the part of district leaders to pursue strategies designed to discourage voter participation in tax-measure elections. Strategies such as paying a premium cost for a special mail-only election, rather than placing the measure on the ballot during a regular election (cheaper, and higher voter participation). And targeting only select segments of the community, such as parents of children in the district's schools, with get-out-the-vote campaign material, while keeping a lower profile in the community at large.
This spring the Menlo Park City School District is asking voters to renew an existing parcel tax that expires in mid-2017 (Measure A); and to approve a new tax based on increases in student enrollment (Measure C). Voters in the district which includes portions of Menlo Park, Atherton and nearby unincorporated areas have begun receiving their mailed ballots, which must be returned by May 3.
In an unusual turn for a community that has overwhelmingly supported parcel taxes for the schools with little if any resistance, there has been an organized effort opposing the two measures this season. Consequently, what has usually been a low-key campaign resulting in success for the tax effort has turned into a sometimes rancorous debate over the necessity of the taxes and the accuracy of the financial figures the district is using to make its case for the two measures.
While we believe that the revenue that would continue to flow into the district by a renewal of the current parcel tax would be a good investment in the district's schools, a larger issue has derailed our support for these measures. The fatal flaw we find in Measures A and C is that, unlike the tax that will expire next year, these two taxes would be permanent. That would mean that all of the district parcel taxes a total of five if these two are approved would never sunset. The district would join the ranks of very few districts in the state that don't allow future voters to decide whether a tax should continue or whether it is no longer justified. And we believe that would be a diminution of public oversight of the public's business oversight that's necessary in a healthy, open democracy.
Proponents of the measures defend the district's decision not to put a time limit on the taxes, saying that the schools' need for the additional funds is permanent, and that the district and its volunteers shouldn't have to be in a perpetual campaign mode. These are understandable arguments, but don't convince.
Proponents also argue that the school board could choose not to exact the tax any given year, and if the community isn't happy with the board's actions in that regard, others can try to unseat the incumbents by running for election. The problem with that argument is that the school board, following another dismaying trend among public-agency governing boards, appears to have developed into a closed club: When a member decides not to run for re-election, he or she resigns before the term expires and at a point where the board is allowed to appoint a replacement. And that hand-picked new member then has the incumbent's advantage at the ballot box during the next election.
We acknowledge that school board members are putting their hearts and their best efforts into the work of making very good schools great schools, and those efforts are paying off. In recommending a rejection of Measures A and C, we are not denying the need for additional funding to support outstanding teachers and programs, and to offset the costs of higher-than-expected enrollment.
If these measures fail, we encourage the board to go to the voters again, in November or next year before the tax expires. But this time, give the taxes an expiration date it could be longer than four years. And invite the community the entire community to become informed about what the district does, how well it does it, and the need for property owners to continue supporting its efforts through parcel taxes.