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A New Tax for Castro Valley? Let the Conversation Begin

School board members will begin discussing their initial questions and concerns about the possibility of a putting a parcel tax to a public vote in 2012.

The early stirrings of conversation about the possibility of a new tax for Castro Valley have begun at the school district, whose finances have been gutted by state failures over the past three years.

A discussion about parcel taxes—which are unlike other kinds of taxes because they can be applied directly to local schools without passing through state hands—is expected to get started "as a discussion item only" at the board's May 26 meeting. Last week, the board listened to an expert give them the highlights of lessons he has learned from past experience helping districts custom-build a tax structure that voters will approve and appreciate.

Latest trend: shifting from 'enrich' to 'something's really wrong'

"The building's on fire and we really have to do something," said consultant Brad Sender, paraphrasing the latest shifts in how schools talk to the voting public. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, schools used words like enrich, enhance and strengthen, he said. But since the recession began in 2008 and drastic budget cuts for education followed, schools are saying, "Something's really wrong and we have to try to do something," Sender said.

Piedmont and Menlo Park school districts have levied hefty parcel taxes for many years, helping to explain the high-quality education there. 

Castro Valley Unified School District, also an educational gem, so far has managed to avoid parcel taxes through effective management and successful school bond measures, and most recently by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations through grass-roots efforts spearheaded by Save Our Schools Castro Valley.

Good schools make houses more valuable

Last week, Patch reader Michael Kusiak posted a comment tying school performance to property values. "CVUSD is why we bought here, and it's at the core of what makes CV a community," he said.

"As a temporary measure, maybe generating $100 to $300 per household with exemptions for seniors and lower income brackets would be a smart investment to serve as a stopgap until the revenue situation stabilizes," he wrote.

The school board so far is nowhere near proposing a parcel tax, let alone proposing one at that level of detail.  At the moment, board members are just listening.

The earliest action would be a decision to survey the community.

"A decision to poll is not a decision to hold an election," Superintendant Jim Negri told board members at their April 14 meeting. Negri has been through "about 10 of these" during his service at other school districts, he said.

Factoids and observations from experience

Here are some of the nuggets of information that Sender left with board members:

  1. A parcel tax passes with a two-thirds majority, not 55 percent as for bond measures.
  2. Most (but not all) districts levy a flat fee that stays in place for six to eight years.
  3. Parcel taxes are unrelated to property taxes in that they are a flat fee, independent of a particular property's value.
  4. Unlike with bond measures, districts can tailor specifics that will be palatable to voters. For example, seniors can be exempted. Large companies with many parcels can be counted as having a smaller number if the parcels are contiguous. Apartments can be taxed at a lower flat fee.
  5. Most parcel taxes in the state are in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are few in Southern California and rare in the Central Valley.
  6. Most parcel taxes start at a modest level of, say, $24 or $42. Over time, as parcel taxes become part of the local culture and residents remain happy with the quality of education, voters readily agree to higher rates on the order of $300, or even as much as $600 in some cases.
  7. Negative events in a school district's history stay in the public's mind, even if management and quality has been superlative in recent years.
  8. The Bay Area mindset is generally favorable to parcel taxes because residents appreciate that the money raised here will be spent here, rather than sent to the state for equitable reallocation to all schools.
  9. Women are more likely than men to favor parcel taxes when the economy is strong, but they are almost as unlikely as men when the economy is weak, as it is now.
  10. Most surveys are conducted by phone and include 400 people because that number offers a margin of error of 4.5 percent, which is considered standard.
  11. The surveys cover all types of decision-makers within the school district's boundaries, no matter whether they live in apartments or have children in school.

Sender suggested keeping an eye on the economy. "It does in fact look like it's getting better," he said.

School board member George Granger pointed out that voters have tended to be supportive of schools in times of crisis. For example, a bond measure put on the ballot shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, did better than expected, he said.

"It's scary times for education," Granger said. Districts around the state talk about "falling off a cliff," not "gradual impacts to programs."

Board member Jo Loss said, "I think people are more attuned than ever because the budget cuts have been so severe."

David Ross May 10, 2011 at 05:03 PM
Contrary to popular belief, we who live in rented houses or apartments do pay property taxes. True, we don't pay it directly. It is part of our rent. Do you really think that landlords are so generous that they just eat their increased property taxes? In today's child-centric, government union ruled world, it is considered sacrilegious to deny schools money. After all, it's for the children.
Steve Ontiveros May 10, 2011 at 06:49 PM
I love details. I also love this conversation! Why don't you take a stroll over to Pleasanton (virtually of course.) They recently had a special parcel tax vote before voters. Here is the exact language of the parcel tax in question. What do you think? How would you vote on this if it were in Castro Valley? http://supportpleasantonschools.com/Read_Measure_E/
David Ross May 10, 2011 at 10:28 PM
I would vote "no." Rather than continuously requesting money from people, why not take an h0nest look at the schools (or other entities) and determine where there is wasteful spending. There are way too many taxes being imposed now. I picked several hoses at random on the Alameda County Assessor's office. There are 13 CSA ST LIGHTING CV SAN SEWER SVC MOSQUITO ABATEMENT CSA PARAMEDIC CSA VECTOR CONTROL PARAMEDIC SUPPLMNT ALA CO CLEAN WATER FLOOD BENEFIT 2 CSA VECTOR CNTRL B MOSQUITO ASSESS 2 AC TRANSIT MEAS VV EAST BAY TRAIL LLD HARD - PARK MAINT I live in the part of Castro Valley that, unfortunately, is in the domain of the armpit of the Bay Area - Hayward. We have 14 assessments (the additional one is for Hayward USD). One thing that bothers me about Pleasanton Measure E is the citizens oversight committee. The committee itself is a good idea. I do not think the committee members should be appointed my the Board of Education. That's akin to asking the wolf to pick out the guards for the hen house.
Rachel Bradley-Gomez May 10, 2011 at 11:24 PM
I love that the prospect funding the Castro Valley School District has gotten hackles up, yet when it comes to $8 million worth of flowers, polished landscape rocks and benches along the boulevard, there's hardly a whisper of dissent amongst C.V. citizens... except to complain about the inconvenience. You want to talk about a horrendous waste of tax payer money? Where is that money coming from, anyhow? Oh, that's right, the money fairy. Couldn't possibly be tied to your taxes or mine. And while I like pretty flowers as much as the next person, it's a horrendous, and utterly shameful waste. That 8 million would have gone a long way towards closing the district's budget gap and would have served as a real, tangible investment in our community. Austerity my arse! Living within our means, bah! Who's calling the shots? I didn't sign up to pay for millions of dollars worth of highfalutin landscaping. Meanwhile, this comedy of errors has only caused suffering to what little commerce there is in Castro Valley. And it's simply preposterous to assume this $8M "beautification" project will result in anything except further tax increases - taxes better spent on meaningful investment or not at all. And no, this will not result in a business renaissance. Sorry. I hear crickets chirping. Not a hint of cavalier commentary about why in this time of economic duress, we simply can't afford such frivolity. Glad to know Castro Valley has it's priorities straight.
David Ross May 10, 2011 at 11:34 PM
Sounds like I'm not the only one who as been against this street "beautification" project. I've been against it since the beginning. I love the way politicians and bureaucrats say that it won't raise taxes because the business along the Boulevard are being assessed a fee for this boondoggle. Evidently these "wise people" don't realize that businesses do NOT pay taxes. Any taxes they are charged are passed onto their customers. I like the idea of there being a fee for kids to go to school. Let those that benefit directly pay directly. They will appreciate it more. As it is, people think sending there kids to school doesn't cost them anything.

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