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Measures for School Taxes Faced Tough Task

June 05, 2003|Jean Merl and Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writers

Educators and parents hoping parcel taxes would help school districts through the current budget crunch found a sobering mixture of results in Tuesday's election returns in Los Angeles County and elsewhere in California.

Locally, voters resoundingly approved a parcel tax for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District but defeated a similar measure in Manhattan Beach.

And in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the balloting was so close that advocates of a tax measure there may not know for days whether their razor-thin victory margin will stand. With an as-yet-unknown number of ballots remaining to be counted, the measure in election-night tallying stood 55 votes above the two-thirds majority required for passage.

In all, 19 California districts Tuesday asked voters to approve parcel taxes. Including Santa Monica-Malibu, nine measures mustered the necessary 66.67% of the votes. Most districts that lost are in Northern California, including San Jose Unified and smaller school systems in the Bay Area.

Experts on Wednesday said that a lingering sour economy has dampened voter willingness to increase taxes, especially in places hard-hit by the economic slump, such as Silicon Valley.

"People are going to think twice before they commit dollars to anything," said Bob Blattner, vice president of School Services of California, a financial consulting company that advises many school districts. "I don't think many Californians anywhere have the rosy optimism on the economy that we all had a few years ago."

Karen Fuqua, a spokeswoman for the San Jose Unified School District, agreed. "People can't go into their pockets like they used to," she said. "They're not willing to take that chance."

The districts had been counting on a parcel tax -- a set amount added to each piece of property for a specific period of time -- to help weather one of the worst state fiscal crises in decades. Without the revenues to make up for threatened cuts in state aid, district leaders said, they will increase class sizes, lay off teachers, forgo buying textbooks and slash music, art and other programs.

In Manhattan Beach, an affluent South Bay community with high-performing schools that passed two school bond measures in recent years, the defeat of a $108-a-year parcel tax was stunning. The same community had raised $1.6 million in private donations in a little more than four months to help offset cuts in state funding, and civic leaders believed that this widely endorsed measure had a good chance. Instead, it got 58%.

"To be perfectly honest with you, I am more or less at a loss, and probably still a little bit emotional about it" to explain what went wrong, school board President Mary Rogers said. The district will analyze campaign and balloting data before offering an assessment, she said.

Gerald Davis, Manhattan Beach superintendent, said he was "terribly disappointed" and will recommend cuts in services and programs.

"I thought we had a good, honest message, a fair and balanced message, but obviously some voters out there disagreed," Davis said, adding that he is finding hope in the community's track record of strong support for its schools.

The result was different in Palos Verdes, which delivered a thumping 72.8% approval for Measure P. The $173-per-year property tax, to be levied for five years, is expected to yield about $3 million annually. That is enough, Supt. Ira Toibin said, to restore smaller class sizes in middle schools, buy new language arts textbooks and replenish reserves.

"It wasn't anything fancy, just lots and lots of hard work," said Dora de la Rosa, one of six volunteer co-chairs of the campaign. De la Rosa acknowledged that the district caught a break when no open opposition emerged.

In Manhattan Beach, a small but visible group, led by civic activist Bill Eisen, posted No on E signs and said the tax was not needed.

In Santa Monica-Malibu, opponents said Measure S, calling for $225 a year over six years, was unfair and regressive because it would assess all properties the same amount, regardless of value.

Santa Monica business owner Don Gray, whose son attends school in the district, said he also disliked the fact that the tax would not restore all the cuts.

"For the kids, it certainly didn't pencil out," Gray said.

State lawmakers want to make it easier to pass parcel taxes.

A constitutional amendment being considered in the Assembly would lower the voter threshold for such taxes -- from 66.67% to 55%, the same for school bonds. If the 55% figure had been in force Tuesday, 17 of the 19 measures would have passed.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

*--* Manhattan Beach Unified School District Measure E 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Two-thirds required Yes 4,178 58.03 No 3,022 41.97

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*--* Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District Measure P 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Two-thirds required Yes 8,169 72.76 No 3,058 27.24

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*--* Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Measure S 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Two-thirds required Yes 11,278 66.77 No 5,614 33.23

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*--* Inglewood Unified School District School Board Member 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Willie Crittendon 1,604 60.2 Mildred McNair 1,057 39.7

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*--* Inglewood Council Member 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Ralph Franklin 866 70.1 Mike Stevens 368 29.8

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