SAN MARINO — When San Marino High School needed a paint job last year and the school district had no money to pay for it, a small group of residents went to work and protected one of their major investments. With their own equipment, they painted every building.
This volunteer work force, with a high percentage of upper-income residents who say that one reason they live in San Marino is its schools, now faces an even bigger school improvement project: persuading the citizenry to tax itself.
On Nov. 5, voters will decide whether to approve a San Marino Unified School District ballot measure to create a special parcel tax of $145 annually. The tax would provide an estimated $700,000 a year for the district for the next four years.
The two chairmen of Citizens for San Marino Schools, a committee supporting the measure, said they are depending on the same people who painted the school and a "low-visibility campaign" to ensure success.
One of the chairmen, Suzanne Crowell, said that at least 30 people who helped when she led the painting project are among 100 who stand ready to campaign for the special tax. Her co-chairman, Paul Crowley, said "this will be handled quietly--low key, really. In San Marino we do this a lot."
However, parcel tax measures for schools have a high failure rate in California. And San Marino voters have turned down one of the three tax-hike proposals unrelated to school financing that have appeared on the ballot since 1980. Two measures providing extra money for police and paramedic services passed.
'Sure Bet' Failed
But in 1982, when the city wanted a minimum of $303 from each property owner to improve police and fire services, voters defeated the proposal. It had been considered a sure bet to succeed. Although 59.5% of voters favored the tax, the measure failed to get the required two-thirds the 6,599 ballots cast.
The defeat was attributed largely to efforts by Ben Austin, an anti-tax crusader who describes himself as a retired inventor. The 69-year-old Austin, who has lived in San Marino 10 years and said he invented the two-way zipper, has declared war on the proposed school tax. "I'm going to fight it like hell," he said.
Austin said there is local support for his belief that government spending must be cut at all levels. The district "has no choice but to adjust its expenditures to its income," he said. Declining enrollment, he said, provides "the most wonderful opportunity in the world to reduce spending."
"I don't know what our attack will be, but we're not going to sit still and let this pass by," he said. "It's going to lose. People in San Marino aren't silly enough to pass a thing like this."
Three Seats Open
Another opponent of the parcel tax is Kevin Forbes, 18, one of nine candidates vying for three Board of Education seats in the November election. While the other eight candidates say they support the parcel tax, Forbes said he opposes it because the ballot measure fails to ensure salary increases for teachers.
"My issue is where the money will be spent," said Forbes, who will enter Pasadena City College this fall. "It's time we improved things for our educators, to help them get ahead. Our teachers are underpaid. It's a horrible situation."
Crowell said, however, that she is confident the measure will pass. "I'm sure we can handle our adversaries. We have some of our own secret weapons and ideas that we'll pull out when necessary."
No other opposition has surfaced. Spokesmen for the City Council, Chamber of Commerce and the city's PTA Council all say they support the tax. Elizabeth Platon, president of the San Marino Teachers Assn., said that organization, which represents the district's 150 teachers, has not yet taken a stand on the measure.
Despite widespread optimism, Board of Education President Lois Ukropina voiced some apprehension about the measure's outcome.
Many Older Residents
One problem, she said, is that only one-fourth to one-third of San Marino's 14,000 residents have school-age children. In addition, there are a number of "older people, many on fixed incomes, who are very conservative and anti-tax. I suppose people are suspicious and at a local level they feel they can have a say-so about government spending. They may get out a lot of frustration by being able to say no directly."
The Nov. 5 ballot measure lists improvements in six major areas that would be financed with new tax money, calling them "programs and services that are commensurate with an outstanding education program."
The money would be used for lowering class sizes, maintaining aging facilities and hiring specialists in music, physical education and computer science, and for library services, counseling services and supplies.
The Board of Education approved the ballot measure, Ukropina said, "because I think we are in jeopardy of losing our school system."
Some Programs Dropped