Mar 1 2013

OPINION: A Response to Some Measure A Objections

Proponent wants voters to pass Measure A now to maintain Piedmont Schools.  

This website has recently posted opinion pieces from well-intended Piedmont residents who support our schools but are opposing Measure A. As a longstanding parent volunteer in school- and District-level programs, I appreciate their efforts to ensure that voters make thoughtful and fair decisions, but I believe they have several important things wrong.

We need to renew the School Support Tax now, not later 

Some have argued that Piedmont should postpone renewal of local tax support until after the turmoil caused by last December’s “Borikas v. Alameda Unified School District” decision is resolved.  In their view, failure or postponement of Measure A would not cause problems, because there would still be 16 months until the existing parcel tax (Measure B) expires on June 30, 2014.  They seem to expect Borikas to be resolved (either by further court action or legislative changes) AND that the District can pass an appropriately-drafted successor to existing Measure B in time to avoid fiscal chaos.

I appreciate their desire not to jump the gun.  But state laws that govern school budgeting don’t give us 16 months to wait.  The School Board has 4 months (until June 2013) to adopt the District budget for 2013-14, which must include formal projections for the next two fiscal years, 2014-15 and 2015-16.  Without Measure A, the District would have to project huge fiscal shortfalls after Measure B expires.  The School Board could promise to scramble to adopt a replacement tax before June 30, 2014, but would also have to state its intention to cut expenses if that failed – since personnel costs are over 90% of expenditures, this could mean laying off nearly a third of District staff to avoid running out of money.

After this planning deadline, the School Board has a total of 12 months (until March 2014), to either replace the funding (likely by passing a new parcel tax) or meet a statutory deadline to issue layoff notices to any permanent employees who would lose their jobs in 2014-15 to meet budget constraints.  By June 2014 it has to adopt a budget for 2014-15, reflecting the situation Piedmont finds itself in at that time.

Anyone who is not extremely confident that the Borikas controversy will resolve in the next six months or so needs to recognize that rejection of Measure A will definitely cause distress, and is extremely likely to cause major disruptions to our schools.  It takes months to discuss and draft a parcel tax measure – especially if that discussion includes detailed review of alternative rate structures for a tax.  Then it takes more months to put a proposal on the ballot and campaign to pass it.  If Measure A fails next week, we already have less than a year to pass a replacement before the March 2014 layoff notice deadline.

As an attorney with more than 30 years experience with court cases and our state Legislature, I know that major public policy issues are rarely resolved in a matter of months, so plan for them to take years.  We might be pleasantly surprised, but the price of disappointment is too high.

Measure A does provide for adequate citizen oversight

Another recent letter doubted that Measure A’s proposal for citizen oversight provides necessary independence, noting that it would replace the free-standing Citizens Advisory Committee created by existing Measure B with one under the umbrella of the School District’s Budget Advisory Committee.  I’ve been a member of the current Committee since day one, and chaired it during its first two years of operation (until I stepped aside to run unsuccessfully for the School Board).  The proposed changes will not hamper the new committee’s independence – the existing and proposed committees both consist of volunteers appointed by the School Board, and both are set up to report directly to the School Board.  My four years on the current Committee have proven to me that its independence and effectiveness depend completely on the volunteers – if Piedmonters step up to ask detailed questions and crunch numbers, then both structures provide equivalent opportunity for us to generate thoughtful reports that deserve attention from the School Board and the rest of the community. 

Once state law is settled, we’ll review and revise the tax as appropriate 

Proposing and passing a school support tax is a lot of work, but Piedmonters have been willing to pay ever-rising taxes for decades in order to maintain our excellent schools.  Existing Measure B provides nearly one third of the school district’s budget.  That gets Piedmont from California’s 49th in the Nation spending levels up to something like the national average – with those funds the District provides programs that rank near the top nationally.  We can’t afford to lose this money.

But Piedmonters are also committed to fairness.  Opponents of Measure A have good arguments why its structure isn’t fair.  But the right question in March 2013 is whether it’s as fair as it can be while state laws are in turmoil, while still ensuring that Piedmont’s schools have the funding they desperately need.  I believe it is.

When the School Board restructured Measure A to respond to the Borikas decision, the members committed to reviewing its structure once state law settled.  On the same night they voted to terminate and replace existing Measure B a year early to ensure our parcel tax passes muster, they stated their willingness to terminate and replace Measure A early once the courts or the Legislature settle the law, if the newly-settled law allows.  I believe them, and plan to be standing at the podium reminding them of their commitment and volunteering to help. 

You don’t have to believe that Measure A is perfect in order to recognize that it’s critical to our schools.  I hope other Piedmonters will join me in passing Measure A.

Jon Elliott, Piedmont resident and former Citizens’ Advisory Committee Chair

Editor’s Note:  The Piedmont Civic Association (PCA) does not support or oppose ballot measures or candidates for public office.  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of  PCA.  Legal opinions are those of the author.

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