Voters in four Palos Verdes Peninsula cities, ignoring pleas to come to the rescue of their financially strapped school district, have turned down a proposal to levy a $100 flat-fee property tax by refusing to give it the required two-thirds majority. The proposal received 61.5%, or 7,792 votes.
Disappointed school officials, who had warned that rejection of the measure in Tuesday's special election could lead to the demise of quality education in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, took some consolation in the majority vote.
They attributed the defeat mainly to a powerful anti-tax sentiment, apparently reflected in an unusually large voter turnout. The 12,672 ballots cast represented 31% of the district's registered voters, or about 50% more than in recent school elections.
Although there was no organized opposition, a number of residents said before the election that they were against any new taxes and that the school district must learn to live within its budget.
A special school board meeting is scheduled for Monday evening to consider ways to deal with the projected $1.2-million deficit, in a $36-million budget, that trustees had hoped would be covered by the parcel tax.
The levy on property in Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates, Palos Verdes Estates and Rolling Hills would have raised about $2.4 million in each of the next five years, enough to balance the budget and restore some programs cut in recent years.
The board could resubmit the tax proposal as early as next November, but in the wake of Tuesday's defeat, trustees indicated that they could not even consider that possibility until, as one official said, "we have licked our wounds and reviewed the options still open to us."
In two other Los Angeles County school-tax elections Tuesday, Beverly Hills lost out with 59% of the vote, while the Azusa district barely cleared the two-thirds-vote hurdle with 67%.
Supporters of the Peninsula school tax, who gathered in the district board room to await the election results, said too many people "voted their pocketbooks," instead of considering the needs of the schools.
"I can understand and even sympathize if the people were simply voting against more taxes," said a dejected school board President Sally Burrage. "But if they're telling us we don't need the money, that makes me angry. I'm really frightened by what's ahead of us now."
Supt. Jack Price observed that Tuesday's 62% approval margin would be ranked as a landslide victory in a political race, "but for our schools to win, we must get two yes votes for every no."
Price said the election outcome may be "the beginning of the end" for an educational system that has consistently ranked in the top 10% of state schools on academic achievement tests.
He said options open to trustees include more layoffs and school closures, increasing class sizes and cutting programs not mandated by the state. One of the system's three high schools may have to be shut down, he said, or the district may abandon its remaining two intermediate campuses and consolidate their student bodies with the high schools.
Veteran Trustee Martin C. Dodell said the Peninsula district will continue to turn out high-achieving students, despite more cutbacks. But overall, he said, "I'm afraid our schools are heading down the road to mediocrity. If you're only willing to pay for a hamburger, you don't get a steak."
Decline in Property Values
Only 18% of Peninsula households send children to the public schools, but Trustee Jeffrey N. Younggren said all residents will be adversely affected by further erosion of the neighborhood school system. For one thing, he said, even greater street congestion is inevitable as more students drive longer distances to consolidated schools. Other supporters of the parcel tax predicted a long-term decline in property values.
One supporter at the board room gathering--many termed it a "wake for the school district"--compared the parcel-tax issue to the question of providing a new school crosswalk on a heavily traveled street. "A few kids have to be run over and killed before people will admit that there is a need," she said.
The once-wealthy district's troubles date back a decade or more when enrollment began a rapid decline, accompanied by a loss in state aid based on average daily student attendance. Enrollment now stands at about 10,160 after a loss of more than 7,000, or 41% of the district's peak enrollment in the early 1970s. Seven of 20 campuses have been closed.
The shrinkage in the Peninsula's pool of students is attributed to escalating property values, which discourage younger families with school-age children from settling on the hill. A trend toward lower birthrates in the generally affluent community, along with a growing preference for private schools, helped hasten the enrollment decline.