As two members of the Menlo Park City School District's governing board finished up their terms Wednesday night, Nov. 30, board members agreed on draft details of a new parcel tax measure that will be voted on when two new board members are sworn in on Monday, Dec. 5.
The board members agreed to use as a starting point for Monday's discussion a $350 parcel tax that would have a six-year term. One of the district's four current parcel taxes, which brings in about $1.6 million a year, expires at the end of June 2017.
The amount did not seem to be anyone's first choice, but was seen as a compromise between those who wanted to ask for a high enough parcel tax to avoid any budget cuts, and those who wanted to see the district find a long-term solution to its budget problems without additional taxes.
"I think we have to be realistic about what we're going to be able to pass," said board member Joan Lambert, who said she favored a parcel tax of around $300.
"I think it is just so important that we win this parcel tax election," she said. "I think it is going to require a little bit of compromise on everyone's part."
The proposal would increase the amount of the expiring parcel tax, now at $207 a year. If the $350 figure is adopted, it would bring the total in parcel taxes paid by district property owners to the school district to approximately $1,017 a year.
That total would be about $300 a year less than the maximum tax that could have been imposed under two parcel tax measures that failed to gain approval in May. Those two measures did not have an expiration date. One would have been a straight renewal of the expiring $207 parcel tax and the other would have been directly tied to increases in student enrollment, with a cap of about $470.
Since the two measures failed to get the required two-thirds voter approval, the district has been working to figure out how it can balance its budget.
The district is a "community-funded" district, receiving a majority of its funding from local property taxes. Unlike most other California districts, very little of its funding is tied to the number of students in the district's schools.
While property tax revenues have steadily increased in the district in recent years, spending has grown even faster, with the two main factors being continuing enrollment growth and a dramatic increase in the district's required contributions into the state's retirement system, imposed by the state in 2014.
The district says its contributions into the state pension system will increase from $2.25 million a year in the 2013-14 fiscal year to approximately $6 million a year by the 2020-21 fiscal year, if the district's personnel costs grow at expected rates.
The increase in contributions by the district (and all other California districts) into the system will increase from 8.25 percent of teacher salaries in 2013-14 to 19.1 percent by 2020-21.
The increases were needed to fund the state retirement system's obligations to retirees after years of underfunding.
Contributions by the state, and by employees, are also increasing. Teachers’ contribution rates will increase from 8 percent to 10.25 percent over three years while the state’s contributions will go from 3 percent to 8.8 percent over three years.
The meeting was the ninth in a series, beginning in mid-September, that the district said were designed to fully explore the district's financial situation and get the public's input on how the budget should be balanced.
The process has been complicated by the fact that two board members, Jeff Child and Maria Hilton, chose not to run for re-election in November. Two new board members, David Ackerman and Caroline Lucas, officially begin their terms on Friday, Dec. 2, and will be sworn in at the Monday, Dec. 5, meeting.
The district invited both new board members to sit at the table with current board members at the Nov. 17 and Nov. 30 meetings. Mr. Ackerman, the retired principal of Oak Knoll School, took the board up on the offer. But the second new board member, Caroline Lucas, a Spanish teacher in the neighboring Las Lomitas School District, said she was not comfortable doing so and spoke from the audience at both meetings.
At the start of Wednesday's meeting, Ms. Lucas told the board that her "mission and purpose is to help this body better understand the perspective of voters who are skeptical and hesitant to provide more financial support."
She said she could support a new parcel tax only if the district could offset the additional revenue a parcel tax would bring in with cuts in spending.
The Dec. 5 board meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the Hillview Middle School Performing Arts Center, 1100 Elder Avenue, Menlo Park. If the school board wants to put a measure on the March 7 ballot, it must take action by Dec. 9.