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Lower tax threshold sought out
January 04, 2010, 03:30 AM By Heather Murtagh
A new state initiative that would ease passage of school district parcel tax measures by lowering the threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent is gaining ground — and with a significant amount of local support.

Signatures can now be collected on the initiative, according to a press release issued by the Secretary of the State Wednesday and locals Mark Olbert, San Carlos Elementary School District board president, and Don Gibson, trustee for the Sequoia Union High School District, are among the early proponents. This is the second locally-started effort to lower the passage rate. State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, authored a bill with the same intent that never generated enough support from other legislators to move forward.

Californians for Improved School Funding, the group putting forth the initiative, argued it will allow local districts more financial control and less dependence on the state.

Over 800 likely voters were polled by EMC Research, Inc. from May 28 to June 3 to determine the chances of such a ballot initiative passing. Forty-seven percent of those polled were willing to support the measure before getting more information. That increased to 60 percent with more information about education funding and taxpayer safeguards. Of those surveyed, 75 percent felt schools need more money.

Giving that control to more local districts was the impetus for Simitian, who began working on such a bill in 2003.

The bill is sitting in the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments committee, which last took action in June.

"When there’s not enough money for the state to meet its Prop. 98 commitment, we could give districts this tool to help,” Simitian said at the time, recognizing he was challenged by the few Republican votes needed to move the bill forward.

For many school districts, a lower passage threshold would make a huge difference.

Facing million in cuts, the Redwood City Elementary School District Board of Trustees put a parcel tax before residents during a special election this summer. The five-year levy required a two-thirds yes vote to pass, but fell short with only 63.6 percent, according to the semi-official results on the San Mateo County Election’s Office Web site.

A failed measure under current rules, however a clear passage under the proposed 55 percent threshold.

The Millbrae Elementary School District faced a similar fate in June 2008 when a $78-per-parcel tax received 66.29 percent in favor, just shy of the 66.7 percent needed to pass. Measure P had the potential to generate up to $492,648 for the district annually before the senior exemptions.

San Carlos put measures before voters twice during the previous year. Measure S, which appeared on the November 2008 ballot, was set to replace Measure D and permanently increase the levy by $75 to $185 annually. Despite polled support, the measure was narrowly defeated with 65.6 percent of the vote — just shy of the 66.7 percent needed.

San Carlos was able to come back in May and successfully pass a six-year $78 annual parcel tax.

In preparation for another tough budget season, school districts are putting measures on all-mail ballots in February and March.

The San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District put a seven-year renewal of a parcel tax with a $96 increase, to about $180, before voters in February.

Burlingame is seeking a 10-year extension and combination of two previously-approved taxes totaling $180. Both measures end in 2011. The district, which receives $1.4 million annually from both taxes, is looking to maintain the funding level currently paid by property owners.

Officials in the San Mateo County Community College District are studying a variety of tax options as a way to generate and control funds for classes locally.

For more information about Californians for Improved School visit

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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