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Honig Aids La Canada School Tax Campaign

January 24, 1991|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite its relative obscurity, the little school district of La Canada Flintridge last week kicked off a campaign for a proposed new school tax by bringing in state schools Supt. Bill Honig to personally attest to the need for the tax.

Parents in the La Canada Unified School District had been preparing for a year to launch the tax proposal and managed to persuade Honig to appear after relentless lobbying in Sacramento.

Despite the onset of the Gulf War, more than 100 leaders in the affluent, residential community turned out to hear an assessment of school funding at a reception for Honig.

The group--including the city's mayor, council members, principals, teachers, parents and business leaders--have decided that the only way they can protect and foster their quest for academic superiority is to tap the pockets of each member of the community through a controversial school parcel tax.

The school board Tuesday unanimously agreed to ask voters in the community of 22,800 to approve a tax that would annually assess each property owner $250 per parcel for the next four years.

The tax, which is to appear on a special June 4 ballot, would raise about $1.5 million a year for local schools to make up for increasing shortfalls in state funding, said Meredith Reynolds, chairman of the Committee for Quality Education, a volunteer organization formed a year ago to deal with the school funding crisis.

The tax proposal is not unique. A similar parcel tax was defeated at the polls five years ago when 56% of the voters approved--but it fell short of the required approval by two-thirds of the voters.

This time, tax supporters said they will employ better strategy.

The opening move was the appearance by Honig, who addressed the crowd with facts and figures gleaned from Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed austerity budget that Honig said spells dire consequences for school districts in the state.

About 30 districts are expected to go bankrupt by spring, Honig warned, adding that more are sure to follow.

The fact that Honig even showed up in a small school district of only 3,000 students surprised some political observers.

But it didn't surprise leaders of La Canada's campaign.

"Next, we expect to invite the governor," said Carol Liu, chairwoman of a community legislative action committee, also formed a year ago to lobby in Sacramento for the schools. Liu's committee is credited with persuading Honig to visit the community.

"These are really important times for public schools," said Liu, whose 13-member committee created the hors d'oeuvres for the reception for Honig.

"We are a community that really rolls up its sleeves and wants to seek the betterment of all those who live here. In our case, schools are the issue."

She said Honig's visit last week was carefully timed to precede the school board's action on the parcel tax measure.

Reynolds admits that she was surprised by the turnout at the reception, held just three hours after the Persian Gulf War began. "The exciting thing about it is that, despite the world events, it was a very crowded room. Nobody was happy to be there; it just showed how much they really care."

But she also admits that gaining two-thirds voter approval for a property tax measure during a recession will not be easy. Of the 97 parcel tax elections that have been held since Proposition 13 put a cap on school taxes in 1978, only 35 have passed, according to EdSource in Menlo Park, a nonpartisan watchdog on school financing.

Reynolds said proponents must first alert the community to the seriousness of the funding crisis. She estimates that 200 to 250 volunteers are needed to pass the word. "We hope we have the support and the energy to explain the situation," she said.

Dick DeGrey, a longtime resident and community activist, warned tax proponents earlier this month that their campaign "isn't going to be all apple pie and hot dogs." He said more than 75 people called City Hall recently to complain about a $1.25-a-month increase in the trash collection fee for a city-sponsored recycling program. He predicted that a $250 property tax levy will be met with even greater disdain.

Despite pessimism about the chances of any new tax being approved, Reynolds said she is confident of the outcome if the committee is successful in educating the voters. "We're really talking survival," she said. "If the measure doesn't pass, parents will be shocked at the outcome.

"It's a tough job," Reynolds added. "We are our own limitation. But if we get the breadth of support and energy, I think we'll do it."

The proposed tax would exempt residents age 65 and over provided they apply for special consideration. Owners of adjoining parcels with a single residence would also only have to pay one share. The 1985 parcel tax proposal did not provide for exceptions.

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