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Voters Urged to Pass a Parcel Tax for Schools

The district for Santa Monica and Malibu seeks $6.5 million annually for six years to avoid cutbacks. Critics call the plan regressive.

May 25, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The fliers landing in Santa Monica and Malibu mailboxes have a nigh-apocalyptic tone: Looming state budget cuts "will devastate our schools" and cause them to "deteriorate overnight." Teacher ranks will be slashed, class sizes will soar, and arts and music in the early grades will be axed.

All that and more will happen, the mailers assert, unless voters agree to tax commercial and residential properties an additional $225 a year for the next six years.

Supporters say the proposed parcel tax, Measure S, would raise about $6.5 million a year -- about half what would be needed to make up a $13-million-plus shortfall just for the coming school year.

Voters in the two beachside communities, where land values have unquestionably benefited from the well-regarded schools, will have an opportunity to decide the matter June 3, when Measure S will be the only issue on the ballot.

Nicknamed "Save Our Schools" by proponents, Measure S has support from a coalition of interests that often find themselves at odds, including Santa Monica's powerful renters organization, the teachers union and businesses large and small. Still, victory is far from assured.

For one thing, just getting out the vote in a single-item election can be difficult. Moreover, imposing the tax would require a two-thirds majority.

"It's a big hurdle," acknowledged Harry Keiley, president of the Santa Monica Malibu Classroom Teachers Assn., the local union. "However, the quality of our schools is ultimately at stake, and I believe over time the quality of life in our communities is at stake.... It's a small sacrifice to ask of the voters."

Demographics do not necessarily favor the measure. Only about one-sixth of the households in Santa Monica -- and one-fourth of those in Malibu -- have children under 18.

Last November, voters failed to approve a similar parcel tax proposal, Measure EE, although it got about 61% of the vote. It was the first time in memory that voters had turned thumbs down on a school funding measure. (Property owners are already paying about $100 annually for Measure Y, a 10-year parcel tax passed in 2000.)

A small but vocal cadre of critics of Measure S has emerged.

"It's a regressive tax, an unfair tax, because a homeowner pays the same as Sears or Robinsons-May," said Mathew Millen, an immigration lawyer who owns a five-unit building in Santa Monica. Millen said the city should divert to schools some of the money it is spending to build low-income housing.

Opponents of the idea advocate a levy based on square footage or a lower tax that would be charged for each residential and business address.

If Measure S passes, landlords are expected to pass the tax along to tenants; proponents say the average tenant will pay about $3 a month. Seniors over age 65 who own and live in their homes or apartment buildings will be able to request an exemption.

As recent headlines attest, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is not alone in feeling financial pain.

In mid-May, cash-strapped school districts across California sent layoff notices to several thousand teachers. And voters in Portland, Ore., recently approved the state's first-ever county income tax to shore up the city's ailing schools, in what one organizer called "an act of desperation."

John E. Deasy, superintendent of the 12,300-student Santa Monica-Malibu district, certainly sounds like a desperate man these days.

"In two decades of school administration, I've never seen anything this bad," Deasy said.

Faced with losing 20% of its $68-million budget, the district sent pink slips to 207 of 1,100 employees, including teachers, custodians, physical education assistants, administrators, librarians and nurses. Without the Measure S infusion, arts and music programs in the 11 elementary schools will be eliminated. Class size could rise from 34 to 40 in the district's two traditional high schools, and third-grade classes face a boost to 30 students from 20.

Measure S, Deasy said, could save the jobs of most of the threatened teachers. "We're not trying to save everything," he said. "We're trying not to cut back programs that are fundamental to children's success.

"If it doesn't pass," he added, "it's a very dark picture."

More programs and jobs could be saved, Deasy noted, if Santa Monica were to contribute more than the $3.5 million it typically provides to schools each year. But the city has its own financial problems, namely a $16-million deficit that is likely to grow to $30 million over the next three fiscal years if cost-cutting moves are not taken. Malibu has been contributing $25,000 a year, but says it plans to increase the amount.

"It's going to be a challenge to find the funds that people are requesting," Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom said.

The budget crunch has made for anxious times for Joni Swenson, who was hired in September as director of Santa Monica High School's celebrated orchestras.

Swenson, who's lowest on the seniority list, recently got the word that she might be laid off if Measure S fails.

"If the elementary music program closes and you don't have students feeding in to the middle and high school programs, the results will be drastic," she said. "I just hope the community understands the school is really going to suffer if Measure S doesn't pass."

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