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Local Elections : Polished Rivals Face Lone School Tax Foe

May 29, 1986|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

SAN MARINO — On one side, about 350 people and a slick video are proclaiming the need for a special tax for schools.

On the other side, one anti-tax crusader and his four-page San Marino Conscience newsletter are fighting the tax proposal that failed to get voter approval last November.

While the pre-election numbers would seem to favor the proponents, they are concerned that only one-third of those voting can defeat the measure, which requires two-thirds approval for passage.

Backed by the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the influential San Marino City Club, supporters of the ballot effort ran a low-key campaign last November. Although 2,894 voters supported the tax, 1,889--more than one-third of those voting--opposed it.

"We got 60.5% of the vote, an excellent figure," said Selma Sax, vice president of the school board and chairman of Citizens for San Marino Schools. "We need 66.6%, so we came back and are trying a different kind of campaign."

One result was hometown football hero and actor Merlin Olsen's appealing for passage of Measure K in a polished video program that has been beamed into hundreds of San Marino homes.

Every aspect of the 22-minute show--the writing, directing, photography, film and screenings at dozens of small neighborhood gatherings--is a gift from the measure's supporters. The film has been circulating for six weeks and will be shown again at 6:30 p.m. today on the local cable channel.

In addition, 200 citizens responded to an appeal from Sax to ring every San Marino doorbell in April to ask for support of the measure. Another 150 posed for a photograph and endorsed Measure K for a newspaper ad that they paid for themselves. Sax said her only appeal for funds netted $8,000, enough to pay all other campaign expenses.

In contrast, the only opposition to surface is from local anti-tax crusader Ben Austin, who says he plans to mail a four-page newsletter to every San Marino address this week, headlining the tax drive as "San Marino-Gate."

Austin said he has spent he spent $1,000 of his own money on the newsletter, just as he did last November. But Austin said this will be his last fight.

"As reluctant as I am to do it, I am hereby extending an ultimatum," Austin said in the newsletter. "Either you, my supporters, come forward with the wherewithal to pay the publishing costs, or I am going to retire from the scene, leaving you to your own resources, and at the mercies of the big spenders."

The fight is over the San Marino Unified School District's second attempt to tax every property owner in the district up to $145 a year for four years. The $700,000 that the tax could generate annually would allow reinstatement of several programs and maintenance projects that had been dropped from the proposed 1986-87 budget.

Since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which reduced state funding for schools, enrollment has dropped in the San Marino Unified School District. As a result, state funding, which is based on enrollment, has dropped. Because of the high incomes of many San Marino residents, the districts does not qualify for special funding for low-income students.

School Board members said this year's anticipated $260,000 from the state lottery has already been absorbed in next year's budget.

The proposed parcel tax money is targeted for funding science programs, reducing class sizes, paying for textbooks and other supplies, restoring vocal music and arts programs throughout the district, restoring foreign language classes in elementary grades, hiring librarians and renovating buildings.

In the video supporting Measure K, eighth-grade teacher Virginia Askren says that in order to have classroom supplies she needs, she uses her own money for such things as film strips, construction paper and educational tapes. High school English teacher Peggy Mabry says she has to do maintenance work in her classrooms.

But Austin accuses the district of mismanaging its money and calls its current budget "generous." He says the district must cut costs to stay within its income, instead of asking voters to provide more money to continue programs that might be maintained with "better management."

Austin said he has mailed his newsletter to all 5,208 San Marino property owners.

This weekend Austin may get help in his campaign from Kevin Forbes, a 19-year-old Pasadena City College student who lost his bid for one of three vacated school board seats last November.

Forbes heads a group of half a dozen youths who call themselves Citizens Against Unfair Taxes. He said they intend to distribute over the weekend anti-tax literature bought with about $100 in campaign funds.

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