Frustration Permeates the Possible Renewal of San Carlos Parcel Tax

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The Background

The decision to possibly renew a $111 parcel tax via the  May 3rd mail-in election is forthcoming.  From everyone I have spoken with, I believe it is safe to say that your ballot will be waiting in your mail box. The purpose of this parcel tax is to provide the San Carlos School District with an additional $1,000,000 per year.  In 2003, voters passed Measure D.  Measure D consisted of a yearly parcel tax of $98, as well as an adjustable cost of living factor built-in to each successive year.  Measure D has been in place since 2003 and is scheduled to run through 2011.  With the cost of living factor, Measure D currently sits at $111.  The possible upcoming San Carlos parcel tax measure would basically be an extension of Measure D for another eight years.  The only difference is that a cost of living factor would not be in effect for those eight years, keeping the parcel tax locked at $111.

The Frustration

Out of all the topics covered on this blog over the past four years, I can tell you that nothing gets people more riled up than San Carlos schools and taxes.  Combine the two, and you are going to get some very strong opinions.  The San Carlos School District, through no fault of its own, has the unenviable task each year of trying to balance a budget that yields higher costs with fewer funds each passing school year.  To their credit, they have done so and have kept all of our schools at an elite level.  However, the SCSD has been aided during the past few years by the herculean effort of the San Carlos Educational Foundation and the parcel tax. So precarious is the financial situation that losing the parcel tax as a revenue stream would be unconscionable in the view of many. I’ve sat through a few of these school parcel tax measures over the last ten years and I can tell you that the amount of angst ahead of this one is palpable.  The frustration is coming from many parents who work tirelessly to support their school through volunteer hours and donations. Some have told me that if the parcel tax measure does not pass, private school or going to a public school outside San Carlos is a very real possibility.  The frustration seems to be compounding itself as there appears to be a growing belief among some volunteers working to help our schools that there are more than a handful of parents in San Carlos who don’t want to contribute anything to the schools, and expect someone else to pick up the slack. “At the end of the day, I can deal with someone not wanting to donate to our schools.  I get that. Public education is public education.  But to not pass a hundred dollar parcel tax which supports the main reason your property values remain so high in San Carlos is mind-boggling,” was how one parent described the situation.

How the Preparation for Proposition 13 Reduced the SCSD Revenue Stream

Many in San Carlos do not understand how we can have such high property values, but our schools have very little money.  The truth lies in what happened shortly before Proposition 13 was implemented.  It’s a bit confusing….but here goes….. Just prior to Proposition 13 going into effect, San Carlos was a different town than it is today.  San Carlos certainly had kids, but not nearly on the level that it does today.  It was not an educational destination for families on the peninsula. The City of San Carlos decided that it in order to have its property taxes remain as low as possible, the portion or percentage of property taxes which were to be earmarked for our schools was to be relatively low, compared to other cities and districts.  When Prop 13 became law in 1978, it essentially froze the disbursement rates that cities were using for determining the share of property taxes to be used for its schools.  San Carlos was frozen at a relatively low portion or percentage of its property taxes going to the San Carlos School District.  This rate has never changed, thus it has been incredibly difficult for our schools to keep up, financially.   Further, it is legally impossible for San Carlos and cities similar to San Carlos to change their disbursement percentage from pre-1978.  However unfair this may seem, it’s a reality that our district has had to deal with for the past 30 years.

At the same time as the implementation of Prop 13, a very famous California Supreme Court case was decided.  The final ruling in Serrano v. Priest stated that the State of California had an obligation to equalize the disparities in the funding of California School districts.  The result was a political compromise.  Essentially, all school districts in California were given a choice:  (1) districts with very high property taxes could opt to be self-funding from their property taxes with very little help from Sacramento (as long as they could prove viability); or (2) districts could agree to essentially forego the heavy dependency on their local property taxes and join the revenue stream from the state budget.  Almost all of the districts opted to be a part of the state budget to secure a minimum level of funding each and every year.  In fact, out of the 1,000 plus school districts in California, only 65 went with choice #1, and became what is referred to as Basic Aid Districts .  One such district which decided to become a Basic Aid District is the Palo Alto Unified School District.  Obviously, this proved to be a very good move for Palo Alto.

Given this information it now becomes clear that an increase in property tax revenue does not translate to more money for our San Carlos schools.  While in Basic Aid Districts the increase in property taxes would most likely translate to more money for schools.  It is also easy to see why so many are asking to either repeal Proposition 13 or build in an amendment which would give cities and districts some more flexibility in positioning themselves to maximize the property tax revenue percentages going to their local schools.

Summary

I rarely contribute my own two cents on an issue such as this, but the one thing I can tell you with complete certainty is that the San Carlos schools are far and away, the number one reason people move to San Carlos and the reason they are willing to pay so much to live here.  I would estimate that 9 out of 10 buyers mention this in my first meeting with them.  There are several reasons to vote in favor of the parcel tax in May.  Helping our schools, kids, community and property values, just to name a few. It could be the best $111 you’ve ever spent.

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