Jul 10 2011

Opinion: Piedmont Schools Not to Blame for City’s Fiscal Crisis

Will voters paint with too broad a brush?

The worst kept secret in Piedmont is that City Council decisions involving utility undergrounding, staff benefits, and recreational facilities have created a fiscal crisis.  As bad, if not worse, the Council has no strategy for fixing the problem.   Indeed, it remains unclear how we will avoid what a member of the Council appointed Municipal Review Tax Committee (MRTC) called a “homeowner’s revolt” when the city increases the sewer tax by 50% and asks Piedmonters, already among the most heavily taxed homeowners in the state, to extend the parcel tax.  The MRTC further noted that without major change in Council behavior, the city would soon incur large deficits even if the parcel tax were extended.

Anger at the city administration is justified. I fear, however, that it might spread to the School District. The city’s misplaced values have, in recent years, put the District at some risk of voter recrimination.  Constant city lobbying for more recreational facilities, particularly artificial turf fields, helped push the District into taking responsibility for expanded facilities at Witter and for a new field at Havens.  As the School Board has publicly reported, the cost of replacing these surfaces is high and must be incurred about once a decade.  Worse, state law precludes the District from charging users a fee for replacing artificial fields.

Unlike the City Council, the School Board has responded relatively quickly and transparently to its fiscal problems.  It has made difficult decisions, kept the public informed of its circumstances, and mostly resisted the efforts of special interests.  It simply does not deserve to be painted with the same brush citizens will likely use on the City Council. It does, however, have to come to grips with the recreational facilities problem.

What can community leaders and we do to help the District maintain the high quality education and facilities that have benefited all of us whether as students, parents, or homeowners? I suggest four actions.  First, we, as individuals, can contribute to the fund the District uses to supplement tax revenues.  Second, the City Council and School Board alike can ask Piedmont contributors to the private group about to spend $6 to $10 million on a soccer facility at Blair Park whether those dollars might be better used keeping our schools first rate or, if sports are their passion, by endowing a fund to maintain school recreation facilities.  Third, the city should not give a public park to the private group because such a gift of public resources would make the citizens of Piedmont, who own the park, partners in the misdirection of philanthropic giving away from our schools. And fourth, we should all remember, and tell our neighbors, that the surtaxes we pay for schools, while high, have been well managed compared to those used recklessly by the City Council.

Ralph Catalano, Ph.D.
Director, Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program
Director, Division of Community Health and Human Development
University of California, Berkeley Professor of Public Health

Piedmont Resident

(This letter expresses the personal opinions of the author. All statements made are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.)

One Response to “Opinion: Piedmont Schools Not to Blame for City’s Fiscal Crisis”

  1. I agree with this comment. I am extraordinarily troubled by the financial mistakes of the Piedmont City Council, and will take those mistakes into account when I next get a chance to vote on any CITY taxes. The best thing several members of the council could do to assure city funding in the future would be to resign. I do not trust them to make good decisions with my money.

    However, I will NOT hold those mistakes against the school district and fully intend to vote in favor of taxes FOR THE SCHOOLS ONLY.

    The Piedmont Schools are what distinguishes Piedmont, not grand sports edifices for sports federations. Anything that threatens school funding is a mistake.

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