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Levy to Maintain Schools Upheld : Courts: Ruling opens the door for cash-strapped districts throughout the state to begin charging taxpayers for upkeep of facilities in public use.


BONITA SCHOOL DISTRICT — A state appeals court has ruled that the Bonita Unified School District can charge taxpayers an annual fee for the upkeep of school playing fields, auditoriums and other facilities used by the public.

Officials predicted that cash-strapped school districts throughout the state will now use the fees to generate millions of dollars for public schools.

The decision affirms a lower court ruling upholding a controversial fund-raising method. Detractors say the fees, which appear on property tax bills, are an illegal property tax. Supporters say the fees are fair and needed.

The Bonita district, which serves San Dimas and La Verne, authorized the fees based on the 1972 California Landscape and Lighting Act. Traditionally, cities and counties have used the act to pay for street lighting and landscaping by charging an annual fee to property owners who benefit from the service. Other "special districts" that govern public cemeteries, weed and mosquito control, flood prevention and other services also charge fees under the 1972 law.

Bonita wanted to use the fees to renovate gymnasiums, resurface basketball and tennis courts, sod playing fields and install picnic benches, among other projects.

"The public is the real winner in the court's recognition of the clear fact that the public schools are open to the public for uses other than education, and that educational dollars need not be used to maintain those facilities," school board President Robert M. Green said in a release. "This is a win for the entire community."

Many school systems have sacrificed campus maintenance to preserve academic programs, officials said.

When Bonita Unified approved the fee in 1991, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. filed suit against the school system and the Whittier Union High School District, which also authorized the fees. The two school districts fought a joint defense against the challenge.

The Jarvis association argued that the fee was an illegal property tax in disguise.

To raise property taxes, a school district must win the support of two-thirds of the voters within school district boundaries. The maintenance fee, on the other hand, must be approved by only a majority of the school board.

The Jarvis group also contended that school systems were never meant to be included the 1972 law authorizing the fees.

The court disagreed. "The bill as drafted and enacted . . . is certainly broad enough to encompass school districts," Judge Donald N. Gates wrote in a unanimous opinion.

Gates added that school districts are important "providers of recreational facilities for the community." School grounds should be open to the public as much as possible, which creates wear and tear, the judge wrote.

"As a result of the constant, heavy community use of the facilities and grounds during non-school hours, they have deteriorated and are in need of a number of improvements," Gates concluded.

Gates noted that the two school districts were not forcing taxpayers to foot the entire maintenance bill. Whittier Union officials acknowledged that students cause much of the wear and tear during school hours, and said they would match any money raised by the fees. Bonita Unified, which has about 10,000 students, agreed to pay at least 40% on any project.

The Bonita fee raised about $420,000 in each of the past two years. The annual fee was $20 per single-family home, $14.46 per apartment, $10.34 per mobile home. Commercial property owners paid $50 for parcels of less than half an acre and $100 for larger properties.

Bonita officials have used money collected so far for such projects as refinishing the gym floors at two high schools, repairing bleachers in the San Dimas High gym, laying new asphalt at Ramona Middle School and resurfacing tennis courts at Bonita High School and Lone Hill Middle School.

The fee must be renewed annually. The district is considering raising the fees for next year, to bring in an estimated $762,000, an increase of about 81%. Homeowners, for example, would see their fee rise from $20 to $35.

The school board has scheduled a public hearing on this year's fees for July 14.

Last month's unanimous ruling in Los Angeles by a three-judge panel from the 2nd Appellate District upheld the August, 1992, decision of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz.

The Jarvis organization will appeal to the state Supreme Court, association President Joel Fox said. His group also is backing proposed state legislation that would require a popular vote before any "special district," including school systems, can impose fees to raise revenue.

Fox called the fees an "end-run around Proposition 13," the 1978 voter-approved initiative that limited property tax increases. The fee "denies the protections Proposition 13 gave us, namely the right of people to vote on a tax increase."

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