Is a parcel tax aimed at bailing out the financially desperate Pasadena Unified School District in the works, as many close to education-related issues have suspected for the past several months?
If you had asked that of PUSD officials prior to Friday, the question might have been greeted with either cordial ducking or an outright denial.
But after last weekend, with the forced release of internal documents and emails between school board members and district officials, it would be difficult to explain away indications that not only is there a parcel tax being considered; one is actually being planned.
Documents and other related correspondence on the parcel tax issue were included as part of the district’s hesitant and still incomplete response to a Public Records Act request filed by activist Rene Amy, who had asked to see all documentation related to the activities of the district’s Revenue Enhancement Committee (REC).
When reached by phone Monday, Board of Education President Ed Honowitz deflected questions about the REC and its makeup — information that Amy has yet to receive — and did not divulge the identities of the committee members or whether even such a committee was meeting.
Board member Bill Bibbiani said he knew of the group, calling it an “informal committee.” However, Bibbiani did not know the names of people involved.
“I don’t know what its status is,” said Bibbiani. “Whatever they are talking about needs to be fully discussed in public before we proceed on anything.”
Honowitz said there are a number of steps that the district must take before a parcel tax is considered. But, Honowitz said, “I think it’s something that eventually the district should look at.” However, he said, “I think there are a whole variety of things that the district ought to examine first, and I don’t see it in the immediate future.”
Attempts by the district to raise revenue and cut costs come as the PUSD faces dramatic decreases in enrollment which have compelled the district to get rid of its police department, cut staff and close four elementary schools, two of them in Altadena, which along with the city of Sierra Madre and other neighboring communities is part of the PUSD.
In response to the district’s decision to close Noyes and Edison schools, the advisory Altadena Town Council is currently exploring ways to secede from the PUSD and form its own school district. The Los Angeles County Office of Education recently approved the petitions needed for residents to start gathering the signatures necessary to hold an election that would decide the issue of secession from the PUSD.
Amy said he still hasn’t received all of the documents that he has requested on the Revenue Enhancement Committee, namely the identities of the members. But included in what information that was released are plans by the district to help close a nearly $6.5 million operating budget shortfall this year by having the city pay for such essentials as health care for children, safety, trash pick up and utility costs, and waive all costs associated with running district elections, all for an estimated savings to the district of $2.1 million.
Helping out with the planning of the proposed parcel tax, according to the emails released to Amy, was Fred Register, a longtime local political consultant and elections expert who has worked on a number of similar tax measures, including the first city library tax passed by voters in 1993, and Measure Y, the $240 million school repair bond measure passed by voters in 1997.
In his assessment, according to a Jan. 16 email from Register to Honowitz and Superintendent Percy Clark, a parcel tax could not be implemented until more than two years from now, and only then after the community is united behind a clear plan formulated for what the money will be used for.
“Timing depends on how we’re doing on this list” of improvements to be made in the district, Register wrote. “If the news is good, the case has been made, the constituency is united and there’s no strong opposition, then the best bet is a special election. That allows the school community to mobilize and dominate the vote — as was done for Measure Y. If we’re shaky on the prerequisites, the best bet is probably the highest-possible-turnout general election — which would be November 2008.”
Acccording to Amy, the records were released after the district violated state law by not responding within 10 days to his Feb. 18 PRA. The district responded after Amy sent a second letter demanding access to the documents. But after receiving the information, it was apparent to Amy that some information was still missing, prompting a third letter. That request had not been answered by this week’s deadline.
“I have to wonder what the hell is going on when the district can’t find the records,” Amy said of the still-missing items relating to the REC. “Do they really want me to sue them again, or are they totally incompetent or are they hiding something?”
Perhaps the district is merely following the advice of experts. In his letter to Honowitz and Clark, Register wrote: “It is a big mistake to talk publicly about taxes without first making the case for what is needed (and can’t be afforded) to improve schools. A tax that meets a widely agreed-upon specific need is very different from a tax to give the district money that they may or may not need for murky objectives.”
Further, Register advises the district needs to get all bad news behind it before there is such a vote, and specifically states that if the district needs to close any other schools, it “better do it quickly so we can get over the pain and move on to (hopefully) more positive stories.”
A parcel tax requires a two-thirds majority for passage. There are no limits on what can be spent and no restriction on how much can be raised. However, some districts levy a rate at a fixed amount per square foot of taxable land and often times and annual inflation adjustment is included. All real property in the district or all taxpayers would be taxed.
In the final analysis, Register wrote, “Teachers, parents, classified employees, support groups and administrators must agree on the need for money and on how it will be spent. They need to be ready to join forces in a strong campaign.”
Bibbiani said he did not support a parcel tax at this time and reiterated his desire to have a management audit performed.
“[U]ntil that’s complete, I think it is premature to even consider going to the public. Similarly, we have to complete Measure Y,” Bibbiani said.
Unfortunately for the PUSD, not much “good news” is on the horizon, according to one of the memos obtained by Amy.
In a memo dated Jan. 30, Clark explains to the seven members of the Board of Education that he expects the district to lose 4,000 to 5,000 students over the next four years, which could translate into a minimum loss of $20 million to the district’s general fund.
In the memo, Clark also said he believed the district could maximize achievement and weather the storm of declining enrollment with a proactive effort.
“While I know these are very rough numbers, I really do believe it’s closer to reality than looking at something drastically less,” Clark wrote.