Cotati-Rohnert Park is taking hasty steps to get a parcel tax measure on the June 5 ballot. Wednesday night — — the school board voted unanimously to move forward with a five-year, $89 per parcel tax, levied on property owners in Rohnert Park and Cotati.
Superintendent Robert Haley, parents, teachers and the board agreed that this is an emergency situation with the schools. Under Gov. Jerry Brown, $2 million could be taken from the district next year, shaved off of ADA funding per student. Over the last 10 years, class sizes have grown to 32-1 at some sites, schools have been shuttered, interdistrict transfers are and .
"We look at where student achievement numbers are, and class sizes — that's a vote people are going to make with their feet," Haley said about parents pulling their kids out of the district. "We need to keep students here and attract students back."
"We’re going to have to show the community that we’re doing a better job at teaching students," he added.
Charles Heath, a partner with TBWB Strategies, a political consulting firm that has passed parcel tax measures throughout the Bay Area, on Wednesday presented polling results and election projections to trustees and a fundraising committee.
The firm polled just over 400 voters among the 21,603 registered voters between Feb. 12 and Feb. 16. Residents were asked questions, such as: is Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified providing a quality education, is the district effectively managing public funds, do voters have confidence of district management and would the electorate support a parcel tax.
The data show that between 64 and 69 percent of voters would vote for a parcel tax, Heath said.
Polling questions showed that a significant portion of the community had no opinion or couldn't answer many of the questions in the poll — a sign that a positive campaign could work in favor of the tax, Heath said.
But cost is an issue. The election committee, made up of Councilmembers Pam Stafford and Joe Callinan, members of local PTAs and longtime Rohnert Park resident Susan Adams, mulled what dollar amount to bring to voters. Figures ranged from $79 to $133 per parcel.
Heath said data show that there's tax sensitivity in communities throughout California right now, little confidence in the job market and nervousness about spending in this economy.
"The campaign needs to tell a positive story about what we can accomplish, and let people know that the money stays local — it can't be taken away by Sacramento," Heath said. "There's some urgency to this."
Haley said the governor is projecting a $370 per-student cut for ADA, or average daily attendance. That would reduce the current ADA to $5,347 per student from the current $5,717 — or approximately $2 million annually, based on enrollment. The parcel tax would raise roughly $1 million, or half of what's being taken away by the state.
Anne Barron, the district's chief business official, clarified Brown's cut. The $370 per student would be eliminated in 2012-13 if the governor’s proposed trigger cut if his tax measure doesn’t pass in November, she said.
Trustees and members of the committee throughout the night appeared split at which price to take to voters.
"There are a lot of parents out there who are willing to pay," said Trustee Andrew Longmire.
Others agreed that the $133 tax would do more good for the district, but expressed apprehension about if it could pass.
"I've been involved in campaigns," Adams said. "I'm not going to get involved if it's not going to have a chance at passing. There's a chance that we won't pass at $133."
"I’m conservative," said Trustee Leffler Brown. "If I know I’m going to win at $79, I'm more apprehensive of going for $89."
Heath called $89 a calculated risk, but $133 "suicidal."
In the end, the board went with $89.
"That allows us to make a real dent in the problem," Heath said. "One million is saying we’re going to share in the pain; we're not going to ask you to bail us out, and that’s a message that resonates even with the conservative reluctant voter."
Heath added that if passed, after five years, the district could go back to voters for an extension.
"After we demonstrate to the public that we're spending the money wisely, we can come back for an extension to come up with a new rate," he added. "This is the way it's done in dozens of districts around the state — it's the route to success — get something modest passed, and grow it over time."
The board agreed.
"It builds trust with the community, and gives us time to prove that we're making a difference in the schools," Heath added. "Evidence shows that voters will invest more over time."
He used Novato as an example, when an $80 parcel tax was passed in the 1990s, and today it's at $260.
The board is set to decide on the details of where parcel tax funds can be spent at the next board meeting on Tuesday, March 6. Polling questions will be drafted into language used on the June 5 ballot. Here are some issues that voters were asked to weigh in on. What do you think is the most important?
- Preserve reading and writing programs.
- Prevent layoffs of teachers and staff.
- Prepare students for high-tech 21st century jobs.
- Support at-risk students.
- Upgrade and support computer and instructional tech.
- Maintain 21st century computer instruction.
- Reduce class sizes.
- Provide college preparation.
- Attract and retain qualified teachers.
- Keep school libraries open and available.
- Preserve math and science programs.
- Protect art and music instruction.
- Provide 21st century vocational education.