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Oak Park Schools Plan Vote on Tax

But the larger Conejo district, after polling property owners, looks to other avenues.

November 20, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

While eastern Ventura County's largest school district thinks it can go another year without asking for a handout from homeowners, officials at the smallest -- Oak Park Unified -- are moving ahead with plans to place a parcel tax on a spring ballot.

In separate Tuesday evening meetings, each school board discussed asking voters to approve new taxes to help maintain smaller class sizes and prevent cutting teachers or programs.

Conejo Supt. Robert Fraisse told his board that a recent phone poll found only limited voter support for adding up to $40 to annual tax bills. A parcel tax, which to take effect must be approved by two-thirds of those voting, would be the same amount for all homeowners regardless of the size or value of their property.

The survey of 400 households found that 62% of voters would favor a $20 tax, but support dropped to 60% when $25 was suggested. At $40, an amount higher than the district had considered, only about 40% of those polled said they would vote "definitely yes" for the tax.

Meanwhile, about 30% said they would oppose any new tax to pay for district operations. Officials said the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.

"A parcel tax may not be our best strategy," said Fraisse, suggesting that the district instead delay maintenance, eliminate equipment purchases and make other non-classroom cuts. He also suggested looking for aid from the district's fledgling fund-raising auxiliary, the Conejo Schools Foundation, and spending more of its reserve funds. The district, with a budget of about $150 million, expects its expenses to increase by about $2 million next year.

Fraisse said the district saved more than $4 million last school year by not replacing half a dozen teachers who retired, buying fewer computers and making other cutbacks. The district estimates it will spend about $1.5 million of that cushion through June but that it should have about $2.5 million left to handle any unexpected budget shortfall next year. That amount is in addition to a $4.09-million reserve required by the state.

"Our most prudent efforts would be better placed supporting our foundation ... and if the economy makes a turn for the better, we may never need to pursue a parcel tax," said Fraisse, adding that the board would consider all options if the economy worsens after the 2004-05 school year.

At Oak Park Unified, which already used $300,000 in reserves this year to shore up its $23.3-million budget, administrators face an estimated $1 million in cuts during the next two school years. "It's definite that we're going to have a parcel tax," Supt. Gary G. Richards said Wednesday. "What's still up in the air is how much, when we go on the ballot ... and how long the tax will run."

Based on an estimate of 4,800 properties in the unincorporated county area that would participate, it would take a $105 parcel tax to raise $504,000 annually; $200 would generate $960,000. Homeowners 65 and older could request a waiver from the tax.

A political action committee, The Friends of Oak Park Schools, is ready to coordinate the campaign, according to Richards. The board has scheduled a special meeting Dec. 1 to meet a Dec. 4 deadline to put items on the March ballot. If an April 13 special election were held instead, the board would have until mid-January to decide. Although more voters would probably turn out for the presidential primary March 2, Oak Park officials believe that having an extra six weeks to build support for the measure might be worth the $15,000 cost of a special election.

And while parcel taxes often expire after five years, former Oak Park school board member David Ross, who spoke at Tuesday's meeting, recommends collecting the levy for up to 15 years.

"The only way to have a true test to see how it benefits schools is to see what happens when an entire generation of children goes through school with it in place," said Ross, president of Community Foundation for Oak Park. "I don't think it will be a temporary problem. I think the state's budget problems could go on for 10 years."

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