Will the Well Dry Up in West County School Tax Race?

Voters prepare to decide on another request from the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

In June, the voters of West Contra Costa County passed a $380 million school bond, its fifth in twelve years. Now, as another school tax hits the ballot — and as West County taxpayers continue to pay for those five bonds in addition to two parcel taxes, all amidst a flagging economy — some observers believe that taxpayers may finally say enough is enough.

“This is a school district that’s truly out of control,” said Kris Hunt, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers’ Association. “They just never seem to get enough. This district really needs to rein in its spending just like the rest of us.”

But the way West Contra Costa Unified School District Superintendent Bruce Harter sees it, with the state in fiscal crisis and the district facing a multimillion-dollar budget gap, his back is against the wall. “Our board put this on the ballot after devastating cuts from the state,” Harter said. “This is the only way to keep our programs where they are right now. The state is horribly underfunding education and has been for years. We’re scrapping to maintain programs and services.”

The parcel tax, better known as Measure M, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass, would charge an annual tax of 7.2 cents per square foot of building area or $7.20 per vacant parcel for the next five years. The funds would go toward general-fund operating costs in Richmond, El Cerrito, Hercules, Pinole, San Pablo, and surrounding towns. Harter said the money would go toward lowering class sizes, improving school safety and cleanliness, and supporting various academic and arts programs.

Harter said the district has already made all the cuts and found all the redundancies that it can but is still coming up short. “We’ve been making budget cuts for the past five years,” he said, pointing to recent furloughs and the end of lifetime benefits for staff. “We’ve already made all the hard decisions.”

Hunt, however, said there are still cuts to be made. For example, the district has seen a significant drop in enrollment in recent years, and Hunt suggested that it close its many small neighborhood schools. (Harter noted that 60 percent of districts have experienced such drops, and that demographers have estimated that West Contra Costa’s enrollment will increase again in 2012.)

“It’s simply time they learned to live with less,” Hunt said. “They need to quit asking more and more of people. So has the school district gone to the well one too many times asked too much of their voters? That remains to be seen.”

Right now, it’s looking razor-close: June’s school bond, Measure D, passed with just 63 percent of the vote, which wouldn’t have been enough if bond measures needed the two-thirds majority that parcel taxes do. Moreover, parcel taxes tend to be a tougher sell for voters than bond measures, as they explicitly call themselves “taxes” and as the revenue they raise goes into the general fund, which is more abstract than the tangible construction and improvement projects funded by bond measures. A July phone survey commissioned by the district found that with a 4 percent margin of error and a sample of 600 voters, 33 percent would “definitely” vote yes, 27 would “probably” do so, and 6 percent remained undecided.


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