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Citizens Panel Urges $250 Tax to Aid Schools : La Canada: Without the assessment, which could be put to a vote in June, officials say class sizes will increase and programs will be cut.

January 10, 1991|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of tightening state funds for education, the La Canada Unified School District is preparing to ask local voters to make up for a growing shortfall in the district's budget.

A citizens committee on Tuesday recommended that the district assess each property owner at least $250 a year to pay for rising costs and to restore cuts made in the program this year.

While the school board took no action Tuesday, members indicated they are ready to call for a special parcel tax election on June 4. A final decision is expected Jan. 22.

Without the proposed parcel tax, district officials said programs will be severely curtailed next year. Class sizes would increase and some arts, enrichment and athletic programs would face elimination, Supt. Judith Glickman said.

"Educational programs in La Canada are already cut to the bare bones," said Meredith Reynolds, chairman of the Committee for Quality Education. She told the school board on Tuesday that "it has become painfully obvious that the governing board cannot make any more budget cuts and still provide the type of quality education our children have received in the past and deserve in the future."

After months of study, the committee recommended that the board authorize an election in June to assess property owners at least $250 a year in school taxes. Some committee and school board members warned that the assessment could rise to $400 or $500 because of curtailments in state allocations.

The school board said it will hear public comments on the tax proposal at a 7:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting at La Canada Elementary School, 4540 Encinas Drive. The board expects to finalize language of the June ballot measure at its Jan. 22 meeting.

A similar school tax measure in 1985 fell narrowly short of winning the required two-thirds majority support of voters. Proponents this year said they plan to launch a major campaign to educate the public on the needs of the schools.

"La Canada has never been willing to accept anything less than excellence in its public school programs," Reynolds said. She said the school tax "is the only means still available" to maintain quality.

About $900,000 in cuts were required in the district's budget this year, Assistant Supt. Andrew Meyer said. He expects the shortfall in funds next year to reach $1.5 million.

Community volunteers for the last decade have raised donations to help support the schools. About $350,000 was raised last year. But even that effort is falling short, officials said.

"The problem is not unique to La Canada," Meyer said. "All school districts are in difficulty financially. A number will go into receivership this spring unless something happens in Sacramento" to allocate funds.

But members of the community education committee said they are tired of relying on the state to fund schools. "I have watched this board struggle valiantly," Kay Linden said to school officials Tuesday. "The parcel tax represents our best shot at providing funding for the schools, to keep things excellent rather than just making do."

Shirley DeGrey, a grandmother who raised her children in the La Canada school district, said at the school board meeting Tuesday that she is angry about state cuts. "We have to do everything we can to take this back into our own hands. We have to at least try our very best."

School district and community volunteers admit they will have a hard task to persuade voters to agree to additional taxation, especially in view of a national downturn in the economy. Only a third of almost 100 school tax proposals put to a vote in California districts in the past seven years has succeeded, according to state officials.

"But there can be no more cuts," Reynolds told La Canada district officials. "A school tax is the only option."

The proposed tax would exempt residents age 65 and over, provided they apply for special consideration. Owners of multiple parcels also could be excused from paying more than one share. Details of the ballot measure will be worked out at the Jan. 15 meeting, officials said.

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