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La Canada Group Is Pushing Property Tax to Help Fund Schools

August 02, 1990|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A La Canada Flintridge group is preparing to ask the city's voters next spring to adopt a property tax increase for education.

The Committee for Quality Education was formed this spring by parents to find ways to augment the private contributions required for the past 10 years to maintain programs and class size in the La Canada Unified School District.

Spokeswoman Meredith B. Reynolds said the group concluded that the city should join a growing number of California communities in looking toward special parcel taxes to bridge the gap between the district's rising costs and state funding losses.

A similar tax proposed in 1985 failed to win the required two-thirds approval of voters in the affluent mountainside community. And only one-third of almost 100 such proposals put to a vote in districts statewide in the past seven years have succeeded.

Reynolds is optimistic that voters in the La Canada Unified School District will be more supportive the second time around. "Taxpayers are willing to pay taxes if they see a real need," she said.

The "real need," according to district officials, is a predicted annual $1-million shortfall in the district budget beginning next year, which could severely curtail the level of district services.

In a paper presented to the district governing board in June, the parents group said the tax is needed because "La Canada Flintridge has never been willing to accept anything less than excellence in its public school programs."

Andrew Meyer, assistant district superintendent, said there has been a widening gap between the amount of state money sent to the district and the cost of the educational program demanded by the community. The district budget this year is almost $17 million.

"We are not funded at a level that meets the community's expectations," Meyer said. For the past decade, the district "has relied on the generosity of the community" for donations raised by a local private foundation, he said.

But the foundation, which raised more than $300,000 this year and has set a goal of $500,000 for next year, "is no longer able to meet the gap," Meyer said. The district is considering curtailing programs and increasing class sizes.

Faced with cuts, district parents are attacking the problem on two fronts--locally and in Sacramento.

The tax committee is in the process of formalizing its organization so that it can present a solid plan for a parcel tax campaign to the district board this fall.

Leaders have not yet determined the amount of the tax or even how it would be used, since district officials are still uncertain how schools have fared in the wake of state budget cuts in the past week.

But Meyer estimates that the tax would have to raise about $1 million--about $150 per year for each of the estimated 6,600 landowners in the city. That was the amount that was turned down by 44% of the voters in 1985.

On a separate front, parents have formed a legislative action committee to study the way Sacramento distributes dollars to school districts and to lobby for a greater share for La Canada.

Carol Liu, head of the legislative committee, said the group has barraged legislators and state officials with more than 3,000 letters seeking more funding.

"We're having a small crisis up here," she said, referring to the community of 22,800 residents. "We are exploring all of the various funding sources that we can to alleviate our fiscal problems and get on with the business of educating our kids." She said the committee was formed because "we thought it best if we knew what kind of game we are playing."

Liu and other local activists complain that La Canada is one of only eight school districts in California that is being hurt because of a lack of growth, while larger districts are struggling with too much growth.

As the state juggles its tax dollars to meet the needs of a burgeoning student population, it has cut back on traditional funding to districts, which means that a smaller share of the pie is going to La Canada and similar no-growth communities, Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the tax committee plans to carefully document the need for increased local revenue. Money would be used only to maintain current levels of education, such as class size, she said, and the tax would be levied for only a four-year period so that its success could be assessed at the end.

With the rocky record of parcel tax elections, committee members are carefully studying districts where campaigns have succeeded.

The most successful parcel tax elections have been in Northern California districts, according to EdSource, a nonpartisan watchdog on school financing in Menlo Park. "It's very clear that the majority that have succeeded are in small, homogeneous districts," said Barbara Miller, research director.

Of the 97 parcel tax elections that have been held since Proposition 13 put a cap on school taxes in 1978, 35 passed, Miller said.

One of those that failed was in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, where a recount of votes in July concluded that a parcel tax election fell short of the required two-thirds majority by four votes.

"I don't see parcel taxes catching on as a wave," said Bruce Munro, a Sacramento consultant on school financing. "Nobody has been able to figure out a formula for a successful parcel tax campaign. What works in one district may fail in another."

He said a key, however, "is to get to the public and make them understand." Campaign organizers, he said, "really have to demonstrate a need."

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