New parcel tax up for May election

The $198-per-parcel tax measure would raise much-needed funds for the local school district, and help avoid cuts in the classrooms. There is some opposition to the measure.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

On Monday, ballots will be mailed to the homes of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District voters in an election on a $198-per-parcel tax. If approved, the tax would generate $5.7 million per year for its five-year lifetime. Advocates of the tax proposal, known as Measure A, say the money is desperately needed for a district facing up to a $14 million shortfall next fiscal year. Opponents say the measure is unfair and that the City of Santa Monica can solve the financial crisis without putting the burden on Malibu residents.

Last month, the SMMUSD sent layoff notices to 62 employees as a cost-cutting measure. Some of those jobs could be saved if Measure A passes, but not all of them because of the large financial hole created by fewer dollars coming from Sacramento, the source of more than 70 percent of the district’s revenue. The SMMUSD also had to make cuts last year, but it was able to avoid any cuts that would affect classrooms. Wendy Sidley, president of the Malibu High School PTA, said now that it is impossible to avoid cuts that would have an impact on students, Measure A must pass.

“We have done a good job not making our cuts in the classroom, but now there is just nowhere else to cut except for teachers and personnel,” Sidley said. “This is the only way to help teachers and counselors keep their jobs and keep libraries open.”

District voters have overwhelmingly supported recent funding measures. Most recently, a $346-per parcel tax with no expiration was approved in 2008. That was a combined renewal of two parcel taxes soon to expire. But with two-thirds support needed to pass parcel taxes, even the smallest opposition is a threat.

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“A two-thirds majority is such a high threshold and the campaign is cognizant of that at all times,” said Shari Davis, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Council of PTAs. “And we work very hard to come up with strategies to reach the two-thirds majority that we need.”

As has been the case for at least the past decade of SMMUSD funding measure elections, there is not much of an organized opposition to Measure A. A collection of people with various reasons to oppose write letters to the local press. Arguments against the measure will appear on the ballot and a basic web site was put up. But no money has been raised for an opposition campaign.

Malibu resident and SMMUSD alumnus Wade Major said he is opposed to Measure A because the school district should share the pain of a bad economic period.

“Everybody in this economy has had to make sacrifices and make cuts,” Major said. “I’m sorry, the school district is going to have to cut as well. Yes, they need money. We all need more money … School funding will pick up again when state funding is more flush.”

Major also brought up a frequent argument among Malibu residents that the SMMUSD is a Santa Monica organization, with Malibu being an afterthought. There are no Malibu residents on the Board of Education and SMMUSD headquarters are located in Santa Monica. The feeling of being the little guy became an issue for Malibu residents a few years ago during a dispute on school funding from a capital improvement bond, Measure BB. A portion of the money that was dedicated to Malibu High School was at the last moment removed by the Board of Education and put toward a Santa Monica High School project. This decision was not reversed until Malibu parents passionately complained at several consecutive meetings.

“Malibu is not treated fairly,” Major said. “They don’t care to treat us fairly. They play these tricks at every opportunity at our expense.”

When the 2008 parcel tax measure came up, education advocate Laura Rosenthal (who was last week elected to the city council) and several other usual SMMUSD supporters refused to endorse it because of the Measure BB issue. But it is noteworthy that the 2008 measure was a combined renewal for two taxes that had not quite expired. If it had lost, there would have been another opportunity for renewal. Rosenthal said at the time that if there were an actual threat that the district would take a financial hit, she would have supported the measure.

PTA President Sidley said she has heard the argument about Malibu not being treated fairly. She said she agrees it is a concern that there is not a Malibu resident on the board, and she hopes somebody runs for a seat in November. But she said the City of Santa Monica is extremely supportive of Malibu, noting that it gives about $7 million to the district per year.

“That goes into the district’s general fund,” Sidley said. “Malibu is 20 percent of the district, so we can assume we get 20 percent of the $7 million from Santa Monica.”

Major said Santa Monica should actually pay more money to the district because it already has a high budget (although it, too, is facing a deficit). He said Sidley’s argument is flawed because Malibu residents have higher property values than many Santa Monica residents, and therefore pay more property taxes and, in turn, more money to the district. He said Malibu should break away from the SMMUSD and form its own school district. This is an idea that has come up several times, but has never gotten much past the initial planning stages.

Another argument against the parcel tax is that it is regressive because it is the same amount regardless of the property size. “This parcel tax is really a tax that lets the Santa Monica business elite get off cheap,” Santa Monica resident and tax opponent Matthew Millen said last month. “The Water Gardens [office building] and the Loews Hotel are paying the same amount as a small homeowner.”

Parcel tax advocates say a proposal to tax larger facilities at a higher amount has legal issues the district does not have the time and money to fight. Most school district tax measures throughout California are for a uniform per-parcel amount. There have been some exceptions. A measure based on square footage that was approved in the Alameda Unified School District in 2008 was legally challenged, and that conflict has still not been resolved.

“We didn’t want to take some kind of a risk that would lead to a stay on the measure and lengthy and costly litigation,” said Rochelle Fanali, who sat on the committee that recommended the parcel tax, in an interview last month.

The election will be conducted through the mail because board members, at the advice of the committee, decided it was the best opportunity to get a victory. They also lowered the amount from an initial recommendation of up to $225 per parcel to $198 per parcel because they felt this also made it more likely for a victory, even if meant the full deficit could not be covered. Major called these tactics “sleazy.”

“Everything about this has been constructed not to honor the will of the voters,” Major said. “Everything has been constructed, by their own admission, for what has the most likelihood of passing. The way you’re supposed to do these things is, ‘let’s go to the voters with what we think we need and let’s see if they’re going to give us their approval.’”

Davis said that was not a good argument.

“Of course it was set up with the best chance to win,” she said. “Why would you have an election if you don’t give it the best chance to pass? That would be a waste of taxpayer dollars even more so.”

Measure A ballots must be returned by May 25. The measure contains an exemption for homeowners ages 65 and older. More information on the proponents’ arguments can be obtained online at www.savesantamonicamalibuschools.org. More information on opponents’ arguments can be found online at www.nosneakattax.com.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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