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Conejo Board to Poll Voters on Tax

If a phone survey shows support, the school measure could be put on the ballot next spring. Landowners would be charged up to $35 a year.

October 16, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Bracing for more state funding cuts next year, the Conejo Unified School District this week took the first step toward asking voters to add as much as $35 to their annual property tax bill to aid education.

The school board voted unanimously Tuesday to hire a polling firm to conduct phone interviews this month gauging public support for a temporary parcel tax that could raise as much as $1.64 million each school year through 2008.

If community support is sufficient, the board may vote by Dec. 4 to place the measure on the ballot next spring. It would need two-thirds approval to pass.

Unlike school bonds, under which proceeds are restricted to facilities and capital improvement projects, money from parcel taxes may be used for teachers' pay, school materials and educational programs, according to Supt. Robert Fraisse.

The polling company will spend up to $20,000 to telephone and analyze a demographically representative cross-section of 500 to 1,000 households to determine whether owners of the 47,000 parcels in the district would be willing to pay $25 to $35 per parcel in support of local education.

"I'd want to be polling in the 70% or higher range before I recommend it to the board," Fraisse said.

Whatever tax amount is selected, it would be the same for all property owners no matter the size or value of their parcel, Fraisse said. The measure would permit property owners 65 and older to apply for an exemption.

The tax would allow the district to maintain smaller class sizes, supplemental reading programs and counseling programs at schools. It would also provide money for basic supplies, such as pencils and paper.

Fraisse estimates that the district could receive about $2 million less than it needs from the state next year.

To cover the shortfall, the district would make $250,000 in non-classroom cuts, such as reducing non-teaching staff, using fewer supplies and delaying maintenance; raise about $1.5 million from the parcel tax; and collect a $250,000 one-time gift from the Conejo Schools Foundation, a new auxiliary that hopes to eventually raise a $10-million endowment to support the district.

But if it appears that state funding will be adequate to maintain existing programs, the superintendent said he would not recommend that the board pursue a new tax.

"If it looks positive, we will not look for a parcel tax," Fraisse said. "Our school board is very sensitive to the fact that the economy has been tough on everybody. Unless we really need it, we're not going to ask for it."

Fraisse said the district would seek the parcel tax for only three or four years. If the state budget improves and educational funding stabilizes before then, he said, the poll would indicate what other programs residents would like to see receive additional dollars, such as improving school libraries or repairing aging science labs.

"We don't want to depend on a parcel tax to enrich our schools," he said. "We want our foundation to do that."

If Conejo Valley passes a parcel tax, one Ventura County education official suggests that the idea could catch on elsewhere.

"We're always looking at the various financing mechanisms for education," said Stan Mantooth, associate superintendent for business and personnel services at the county superintendent of schools office. "If Conejo is successful, I think that will help fuel the interest of other school districts to at least give it consideration."

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