Measure S is the only item on San Mateo County's all-mail ballot May 4 election. The district is asking for less money this time around: $471 per parcel annually versus the current rate of $581. It would raise $997,000 annually for the district and requires two-thirds of voters' support to pass. It has an eight year term and would expire in 2029.
District officials are asking taxpayers for less because the district has made $1.3 million in cuts over the last three years, said district Chief Business Officer Connie Ngo. The district saved money by eliminating an assistant principal position at Corte Madera School; eliminating a district office classified staff position; freezing the hiring of the director of learning and innovation; eliminating 30 telephone lines; and reducing its workforce by seven teachers and classified staff positions through attrition, Ngo said.
"The reduction in parcel tax (rates) reflects us listening to the community," Ngo said. "It's what we have determined we need."
Ngo said the district must continue to be prudent and is asking for what it "needs today."
The current parcel tax, Measure O, expires in June and raises about $1.2 million annually for the district. It funds advanced math, science and technology, reading, writing, art and music programs; reduced class sizes; and retention of teachers for the district's two schools, Ormondale and Corte Madera, according to the district website. The tax also covers 17% of district teachers' salaries, according to the ballot measure.
Measure P failed to pass last spring just as the pandemic hit. Many people did not go out and submit ballots because of fears they would contract COVID-19, said school board trustee Anne Fazioli-Khiari. Voters are also no longer contending with a "chaotic stock market" and presidential election this time around, she noted.
The district's enrollment has declined. It had 495 students as of Sept. 18, 2020, compared to 548 at the same time during the 2019-20 school year, according to the district.
Mark Hinkle, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, said he doesn't see the need for an extension of Measure O.
"Clearly a year ago (Portola Valley taxpayers) said 'no,'" he said. "They're asking for a tax extension — if there are a declining number of students, there are declining needs for expenses. It's always 'more, more, more.'"
Portola Valley resident Mark Waissar said many Portola Valley taxpayers saw their taxes go up as a result of the "Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017." He added that the trillions of dollars in federal deficits because of the pandemic will cost taxpayers money, too.
"Our children and our children's children will pay the price for our profligate expenditures," said Waissar. "The most important financial lesson we can teach our children is to spend less than we make, give some of the excess to charity, and make a few investments along the way."
The district was one of the few in the state to reopen for in-person learning this fall, in part because of the parcel tax funding, Ngo said. It spent nearly $1 million for safety measures such as COVID-19 testing of staff, physical distancing markers, cleaning supplies, personal protective gear and more, according to the district.
"We have to plan for these economic uncertainties," she said. "Who could have guessed about this COVID (pandemic)? The parcel tax is why we were able to achieve that. We have to be ready to weather any situation that comes our way."
About 90% of students are back on campus, while the other 10% are learning remotely, Superintendent Roberta Zarea said.
"The pandemic itself has really unified our community; there's so much support for what we're doing in our schools," Zarea said. "There's widespread acclaim for our reopening."
If the measure doesn't pass, the district will need to lay off eight teachers, cut programs and potentially increase class sizes, said Fazioli-Khiari. The district doesn't have a specific plan for cuts at the moment and would begin that discussion after the election, she said.
Hinkle said every district claims that the taxes are needed to fund special programs, but he doesn't understand why the district's costs are so high. The district spends an average of $26,966 per student, according to February data from the state. The state average is about $14,861.
"Yet every district does it for less than they charge," Hinkle said. "Are the expenses in Portola Valley twice the statewide average? How much better of an education are they going to get for double the money?"
The district could lose one resource that's particularly important to students dealing with the effects of isolation during the pandemic: mental health support. The parcel tax funds the district's counselors who provide social and emotional support.
"This year more than ever, we're seeing that's what's needed," Zarea said.
Campaigning during a pandemic has looked a little different. Campaign president Linda Kamran said there has been campaign phone banking over Zoom and socially distanced campaigning outside of Roberts Market and the Portola Valley farmers market wearing "Yes on S" face masks.
Measure O passed in 2013 with 69% of the vote. It consolidated two expiring measures: Measure C (with an annual tax of $290 per parcel) and Measure D ($168 per parcel), and increased the rate by $123 per parcel to $581, Ngo said.
All voters who live within the school district boundaries — which go beyond those of the town of Portola Valley — can vote on the bond measure. The district includes Woodside residents who live in the Skylonda and Skywood Acres neighborhoods and off Philips and Family Farm roads, and part of Mountain Home Road.
The county mailed ballots to voters April 3, according to the Elections Office.
For more on the measure and to read the arguments for and against it, go to smcacre.org/current-election.