BUSD Considers Parcel Tax Measure By SUZANNE LA BARRE

Friday March 10, 2006

A school parcel tax is likely to grace the ballot this November, as the Berkeley Unified District (BUSD) struggles to offset a projected $19 million deficit.  

Two local sources of revenue are scheduled to run out the following June, and if voters fail to approve a replacement measure, district officials say BUSD will have to slash its budget—or risk bankruptcy.  

“If we cannot pass this measure, drastic cuts will have to be made,” said Berkeley Board of Education President Terry Doran.  

Both the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP) and Measure B of 2004 levy taxes on local properties. Set to expire this fall—the funding will run out shortly thereafter—the combined taxes cover almost 20 percent of the district’s expenses. They support reduced class sizes, music classes, libraries, school enrichment and other programs.  

Board of Education directors and district staff are currently seeking input from the public to ascertain the shape and form of an impending tax. The measure would require a two-thirds majority vote in November.  

Dan Lindheim, chair of the BSEP Planning and Oversight Committee, said officials are considering different replacement options. 

One option would roll BSEP and Measure B into one tax and maintain existing allocations. Another scenario would combine the measures, but redistribute funding according to updated priorities. A third option would hike up the tax rate.  

Doran said many residents are inclined to leave the rate as is. Currently, the district reaps approximately $19 million from BSEP and Measure B combined.  

Voters passed Measure B 72.2 percent to 27.8 percent in 2004 as a stopgap when diminished state support threatened the solvency of Berkeley’s schools. In the current school year, it’s plumped district coffers by $8 million. 

The measure supplemented the BSEP, which has funneled parcel tax dollars into specific school programs since 1986. It has contributed more than $10 million this year.  

The district also collects a local school facilities and maintenance tax, passed in 2000. 

Some fear local measures are becoming increasingly difficult to pass, given the barrage of taxes voters have shouldered in recent years. For this reason, Lindheim said, school officials are wary of raising the current rate. 

“Most of the insiders are very reluctant to do that, because you need a two-thirds majority vote,” he said. “There’s some concern that Berkeley voters are maxed out.” 

Regional trends appear to support that conclusion. 

Last March, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bay Area voters rejected nine of 17 parcel taxes, while other measures passed by a sliver. On Tuesday, Piedmont voters approved a school bond with 58.31 percent of the votes; a narrow margin of victory over the needed 55 percent, when just months earlier, the city passed two parcel taxes with flying colors.  

Berkeley resident Stephanie Corcos has opposed school parcel taxes on other grounds. As a member of Berkeleyans for Responsible School Funding during the 2004 campaign for Measure B, she complained that funds don’t trickle down to students, a concern she holds today.  

“The money that’s given most of the time does not get to the children,” she said. “Any measure going to the schools should be carefully looked at that it goes into the classroom.” 

Lindheim insisted the money does go to classrooms. Together BSEP and Measure B fund about a third of the district’s teachers, ensuring 20-to-1 student-to-teacher ratios in grades kindergarten through three. 

The measures provide music education for all fourth and fifth grade students, and many sixth to eighth grade students. Art, science, PE, after-school tutoring, sports and other enrichment programs also receive significant parcel tax monies.  

Besides, Lindheim said, there is no other option. The state of California—the primary source of funding for K-12 schools—is failing to offer adequate support, he said, adding that so long that’s the case, districts will turn to their constituents. 

“The whole logic of (parcel taxes) was meant to be a temporary thing until the state got its act together,” he said. “But the state never did get its act together.” 

The Board of Education will hold special meetings March 22, April 26 and May 24 to allow the public to weigh in on the upcoming measure. The board will take a vote May 24.