State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said Wednesday that he supports assessing fees against property owners to maintain school recreational facilities, but he added that the decision should be left up to voters rather than school district trustees.
In an interview in which he made his first public comments on the controversial maintenance assessment fees, Honig took the middle ground, agreeing both with school trustees who say the fees are needed for financially strapped school districts to properly maintain school grounds, and with anti-tax groups who say Proposition 13 mandates voter approval.
But Honig, arguing that the two-thirds vote required by Proposition 13 is too difficult for school districts to obtain, said voter approval should be based on a simple majority.
"Schools are providing recreational facilities to all people," Honig said. "It's fairer if voters got a chance to approve it with a simple majority."
Honig's comments came amid a continuing statewide debate on whether school district trustees have the right to levy fees on property owners for the upkeep of publicly used recreational facilities such as tennis courts, baseball diamonds and basketball courts.
On Tuesday, a joint authority representing four school districts in the Huntington Beach area rescinded its earlier unanimous vote to charge property owners a $50 annual fee that would have raised $4.3 million for school repairs. Embattled trustees from the Huntington Beach Union High, Huntington Beach City, Ocean View and Westminster school districts had come under fire from a local real estate board and a citizens group that threatened a recall drive over the issue.
Anti-tax crusaders and real estate groups welcomed Honig's remark that the voters should have the final say on the fees, but continued to argue that any levies against property owners fall under Proposition 13 and are therefore subject to approval by two-thirds of the electorate.
"At least he's moving in the right direction by saying such fees should go to the vote of the people," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Los Angles-based Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., an anti-tax group that has been at the forefront of the assessment battle. "But he's wrong with simple majority. It's important to note that many voters do not own property and therefore would not be under any obligation to pay a tax or a fee. Property owners would be burdened more."
State Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange), who is sponsoring a bill that would require two-thirds voter approval for assessment fees, said Honig's stance could be a viable compromise between tax opponents and school districts.
"I prefer a two-thirds vote for the people because it's in the spirit of Prop. 13," Lewis said. "But I'm a realist. My strong suspicion is that two-thirds majority would not pass the Legislature."
The school districts in the state that have levied assessment fees are Orange Unified, Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, Whittier City Elementary, Whittier High School, El Centro in Imperial County, Hayward Unified, Sequoia in Redwood City, and Jefferson in Daly City.