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Flat Property Tax Urged to Bail Out School District : 4-City Peninsula System Needs $2 Million Yearly, Officials Say

January 02, 1986|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

A 30-member citizens committee is studying a proposed flat tax on property that officials of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District say is needed to avert a catastrophic collapse of public education in the four-city system.

Appointed by school trustees shortly before Christmas, the committee has until Jan. 24 to take the community's pulse on the idea of a new tax, research any other alternatives and assess the extent of the district's financial needs.

School officials say the district must supplement its $30-million budget with about $2 million annually for several years to cover its deficits and to maintain a high-quality educational program.

That amount could be raised by assessing a flat tax of $85 a year on about 24,000 parcels of property in the Peninsula cities of Rancho Palos Verdes, Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills and Rolling Hills Estates.

Decision by Jan. 27

The school board must decide by Jan. 27 whether to seek the tax in order to get the measure on the June ballot and start collecting taxes for the 1986-87 academic year--if two-thirds of the voters who cast ballots approve the tax.

Members of the committee and school officials agree that the proposal faces an uphill fight. Only 18% of Peninsula families send children to public schools, according to district estimates, and the need for a special tax has encountered widespread skepticism in the affluent but generally conservative cities served by the schools.

Only one of eight candidates for the school board in the November elections backed the idea of imposing a parcel tax to help solve the district's financial problems.

One candidate called the plan a pipe dream and others said it would be a waste of time and money--an estimated $25,000 in election costs--to try to buck voter resistance to new taxes.

Controversial Issues

Lingering resentment over the district's handling of school closures and the relocation of a continuation high school--issues that provoked several costly lawsuits in the last two years--also may limit sympathy for the tax measure in some neighborhoods.

And even some members of the committee say privately that they will take a hard look at how the district is handling its present resources, including surplus school sites, before they will recommend a parcel tax.

"There are a lot of business and professional people up here who work hard for their money and take a show-me attitude when public officials say we should accept more taxes," said one committee member, who asked not to be identified.

Paying less than $100 a year extra to help the schools may not seem like much to ask, the committee member noted, but "it's the principle of the thing, the fact that it could open the way to a whole new round of taxes."

Nearly 88% of the Peninsula's registered voters backed Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-cutting initiative which, school officials said, along with inflation and dwindling enrollment, brought on the district's financial woes in the first place.

Fewer Students

Over the past decade, the 10,400-student district lost 42% of its enrollment as property values escalated, making it increasingly difficult for younger couples with school-age children to find affordable housing on the Peninsula.

Financial aid from the state, which has largely replaced pre-Proposition 13 local revenues, is based on average daily attendance--and rarely takes into account steadily rising costs of operation, according to Peninsula and other South Bay districts caught in the declining-enrollment bind.

Last year, for example, the Peninsula district received only a .002% increase in state aid, Supt. Jack Price said, while fixed costs rose by 3%. He said that and other financial restrictions left the district with a $1.9-million deficit, which had to be offset by continuing cuts in personnel and programs.

Price, in a strong plea for the parcel tax, warned of dire consequences if the proposal does not win acceptance.

Could Be Catastrophic

"The district is in severe financial difficulty," he said. "Should (the parcel tax) not be successful . . . the results could be catastrophic for the district and for the community and children it serves."

He predicted larger classes, fewer electives and advanced courses, reduction or elimination of counselors, nurses and psychologists, and increasingly older instruction materials and equipment.

His harsh forecast also includes the loss of more students to private schools, more school closures to reduce operational costs--one intermediate and five elementary schools have already closed--further staff unrest over low salaries and a "possible merger, forced or voluntary, with other school districts."

In short, he said, the result will be to "dismantle the district as we know it."

Price's dismal scenario presumably worries the 18% of Peninsula families whose children attend public schools. But why should the other 82% care?

Lower Property Values

The almost universal answer, which is expected to be the key argument in the parcel-tax campaign, is that property values would fall if the schools decline.

"If we lose that image of having a really excellent school system, there will definitely be an adverse effect on property values," said Gary J. Marler, a Palos Verdes Estates real estate broker. "Potential buyers are attracted by our schools and the family environment--they're our best selling points."

However, when asked for his assessment of the chances for the parcel tax, Marler said: "It's going to be mighty hard for the schools to get that two-thirds vote."

The outcome, he and others suggested, will hinge on the "credibility of the district people and the case they make for more money."

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