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Court Upholds Annual Levy to Maintain Public Schools : Courts: Ruling opens door for cash-strapped districts throughout the state to charge taxpayers for upkeep of facilities in public use.


WHITTIER — A state appeals court has ruled that the Whittier Union High School District can charge taxpayers an annual fee for the upkeep of local school playing fields, auditoriums and other facilities used by the public.

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

The decision affirms a lower court ruling upholding a controversial fund-raising method that detractors call an illegal property tax. Supporters say the fees are fair and needed.

The purpose of the fees, which appear on property tax bills, is to make the public share the cost of maintaining public facilities that benefit the community.

The Whittier Union district authorized the fees under 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.

Whittier Union wanted to use the fees to pay for sod on playing fields, replace stadium bleachers, install new wiring in auditoriums and pave parking lots, among other projects.

"The facilities themselves improve the recreational conditions and the general property values of the community," said Lee Eastwood, superintendent of the high school district. "The facilities are constantly used by the community and they require upkeep. This is a method by which the community can help to pay for the upkeep during an era in which funds for public education have diminished."

The school district has cut $7 million from its budget over the past six years, and sacrificed maintenance to preserve academic programs, he said.

"We believe this is reasonable," Eastwood said of the fee.

When Whittier Union approved the fee in 1991, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., an anti-tax organization, filed suit against the high school district and the Bonita Unified School District, a San Gabriel Valley school system that also authorized the fees. The two school districts fought a joint defense against the challenge.

The Jarvis association argued that the fees were 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 in 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.

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 serves the San Dimas and La Verne areas, agreed to pay at least 40% on any project.

The Whittier Union fee raised about $1.2 million during the 1991-92 school year by charging property owners $20 per single-family home, $15.76 per apartment, condominium or mobile home, and $50 an acre for commercial properties. Owners of mines, farms and undeveloped land also had to pay fees.

The school district elected to hold the money until it prevailed in court. Now that the court has ruled, Eastwood said the district will likely use the funds to renovate two dilapidated stadiums.

The fee must be renewed annually. The district did not renew the fee for the current school year, but is considering imposing a fee for next year.

The Whittier City School District, which serves elementary students in the Whittier area, also has approved maintenance fees, but escaped the Jarvis group's challenge. The Whittier City district has used proceeds from its fees for projects such as installing new basketball backboards and laying asphalt on playgrounds.

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 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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