A ballot measure asking Menlo Park City School District voters to approve a $360 annual parcel tax that would expire after seven years was unanimously approved Monday night by the district's governing board, including two newly seated board members.
If voters approve the proposed tax in March, it would replace a $207 annual tax that expires at the end of June 2017, meaning property owners would pay $153 more per year than they now pay.
Board members tweaked the language, gave impassioned speeches about why more money was needed, and even called the district's campaign consultant to answer a question, but in the end (when it was nearly 11 p.m.) all the board members approved the ballot measure.
To pass, the measure will need approval from two-thirds of the voters in the March 7 election. Board members chose the date because it is one of the few county elections scheduled in 2017 that will have polling places open as well as mail-in ballots. The election also comes before the March 15 deadline to give layoff notices to any teachers who could lose their jobs.
District officials were scheduled to take the approved resolution, including the 75-word statement that will appear on the March 7 ballot, to the county Elections Office today (Dec. 6).
After two parcel tax measures failed to receive the necessary two-thirds of the votes cast last May, the district has been working to figure out what went wrong and how to balance its budget. With a financial forecast predicting a $5.3 million deficit by the 1920-21 school year, the district has considered ways to reduce spending as well as a new parcel tax measure.
According to the district's current financial predictions, if the proposed parcel tax measure passes, the district will still need to make between $800,000 to $1.4 million in additional spending reductions over the next two or three years.
In January, the board will probably take up what reductions to make, including a plan for additional reductions that would be needed should the tax measure fails.
Approximately 80 people attended the five-hour meeting, the tenth the school board has held since mid-September as it attempts to engage the public in working out how to balance the budget.
About 25 audience members remained when the board finally voted at about 11 p.m.
The public was given one last chance to speak before the board began deliberating.
Among the speakers was Alex Keh, a district resident without children currently in the district, who had signed the ballot argument against the two parcel tax measures that failed in May.
"I can fully support a parcel tax measure with shared sacrifice," Mr. Keh said. He thanked the district for a number of changes made since that election, including video-recorded meetings, spending reductions and adding an expiration date to the proposed measure.
"I can support the measure with a commitment to hold the line on spending," Mr. Keh said.
District resident Jennifer Bestor, parent of a former district student, warned the board that their proposed parcel tax would probably not even cover the amount of additional pension contributions the district is looking at over the next several years.
A major cause of the financial woes cited by the district is that its mandated 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.
Ms. Bestor warned a downturn in the economy or further reductions in state money coming to the district could worsen the outlook.
"There may very well need to be another parcel tax put before the voters in another three to four years," Ms. Bestor said.
Allen Weiner, a district resident and former parent as well as a member of the Sequoia Union High School District board, told the board that a parcel tax is vital. The district's costs for educating students are high because of the area's high cost of living, but Menlo Park and Atherton residents also have the ability to help pay those costs, he said.
"If we want to be successful in recruiting the best teachers ... we have to be able to offer competitive and attractive salaries," he said.
Mr. Weiner likened the attempts to cut spending too severely to trying to "save money by not changing the oil" in a car.
As the district held its series of public meetings on the budget, a campaign for two school board seats also took place. Three of the candidates, Alka Gupta, Scott Saywell and Scott Hinshaw, were current district parents and active volunteers in the district.
In the end, however, the two other candidates – retired Oak Knoll principal David Ackerman and Las Lomitas Elementary School District teacher, and former Menlo Park district parent, Caroline Lucas – were elected.
Mr. Hinshaw dropped out of the race for what he said were personal reasons, but he did so after the deadline to remove his name from the ballot.
Ms. Lucas had been part of the opposition to the parcel tax measures that were defeated in May. Mr. Ackerman said he ran to help assure a new parcel tax is passed.
During the board's deliberations, school board member Terry Thygesen asked for a parcel tax of at least $450. A smaller amount "is inadequate to provide us with the ability to maintain our existing excellent high quality education for students," she said.
But newly seated board member David Ackerman said that even though board members had been flooded with emails asking for a higher tax, the chances of a measure passing were the most important consideration.
"We can't afford another loss. If we lose we get nothing," he said. "The cuts would destroy the district."
Ms. Lucas agreed. "To not pass another (parcel tax measure), I couldn't live with the consequences," she said. "What level of risk is the board willing to take?"
Ms. Lucas proposed a series of small changes in the 75-word statement that will appear on the ballot. Other board members, Assistant Superintendent Erik Burmeister, and the district's political consultant John Whitehouse, who was reached on his cellphone at around 10 p.m., argued that the changes could lessen the chances of the measure being approved. In the end, Ms. Lucas agreed to the proposed wording.
If the tax is approved by voters, it would bring the total parcel taxes paid by district property owners to the school district to approximately $1,027 a year. The other parcel taxes do not have expiration dates.
Under the new parcel tax proposal, the total parcel taxes would be about $290 a year less than the maximum tax allowed under the two parcel tax measures that were defeated in May. Those two measures did not have an expiration date. One measure would have been a straight renewal of the expiring $207 parcel tax and the other measure would have been directly tied to increases in student enrollment, with a cap of about $470.