Voters will decide the fate of a proposed parcel tax that Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) officials say is needed to keep its programming afloat, retain teachers and keep class sizes small.
Measure B on the Nov. 2 special election ballot asks for $598 per parcel annually, a $193 bump from the current rate of about $405. It would raise $4.6 million annually for the district, which serves about 2,800 students in Menlo Park and Atherton, and requires two-thirds of voters' support to pass.
"It's a reasonable amount of money," said Superintendent Erik Burmeister, who noted that he has made sure the district is very transparent with the public, hiring a public information officer and hosting a booth at the Menlo Park Farmers Market once a month for the last five years. "It's not anything more than any kid in any community should have."
The district is community funded, and 88% of its budget comes from local sources, according to the district.
District officials say they listened to voters who turned down the district's past measures A and C, in part, because they were evergreen taxes. Instead, the latest measure would sunset after 12 years, expiring in 2033. This would replace Measure X, a seven-year parcel tax which expires in June 2024. It has been described as a "stopgap" solution and raises $2.83 million annually.
The district made about $2 million in cuts in the 2021-22 fiscal year budget to help balance its budget. Board President Sherwin Chen said the district "took a scalpel to these expenses," but really "protected the education of our kids."
"We have really thought about Measure B as the second step of Measure X," Chen said. "We met the community halfway. ... Because of the greater faith the community has in the district, we said we are not going to take the easy bait of running a scare campaign."
Measure B proponents argue that district leadership has made smart choices, including being one of the few districts in the state that offered in-person learning for most of the 2020-21 school year. MPCSD "created the reopening plan that many others emulated," proponents note on their website.
If Measure B fails, based on budget analysis, the board has discussed cuts to world language courses, librarian programs and physical education teachers (moving the responsibility to classroom teachers). It would also look at increasing class sizes. Chen noted that the district won't be able to offer more programs as a result of Measure B.
Part of the district's argument for funds is that it has financial challenges ahead, including a potential jump in enrollment from Menlo Park's proposed 3,000 new housing units, almost all within district boundaries. Enrollment has been down in the last two years with families moving out of the district during the pandemic because they want to live somewhere with a lower cost of living since they can work from home, Burmeister said during a Sept. 9 governing board meeting. It is "safe to say this is a temporary decline," he said.
The district recently lost federal Title 1 funding used to support students from low-income families, which Burmeister called a fluke in that not enough district families filled out the survey required to qualify for the funds. MPCSD lost out on over $600,000 in federal COVID-19 aid because it didn't qualify. As future federal aid is likely to be tied to Title 1 eligibility, MPCSD may continue to miss out on hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
Mark Hinkle, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, said the district is asking for a "whopping increase" in parcel tax funds when its test scores are down.
"With inflation creeping up, people on fixed incomes are going to be hurt by this," said Hinkle, who authored the argument against Measure B. He said with enrollment in local districts holding steady, he doesn't see the need for the measure.
"They're basically saying, 'There may be additional housing and that we may have additional kids,'" he said. "This is pretty speculative."
Hinkle added that he would expect math and English language arts test scores to be higher for the type of funding that the district receives about 16% of students tested below grade level in English during the 2019-20 school year and 17% of students weren't proficient in math.
"If you went into a restaurant (where) 15% of the time you get bad service, would you continue going back to that restaurant? Probably not," he said. He argued that doing well in math is an important skill to make it in the tech world, and that for the amount of money the district is spending, it could do better to educate students. (The district spends about $20,000 per student.)
For more on the measure, go here.