Election season is still comfortably far away, but Mountain View Whisman school board members are looking to get a head start on drafting a new parcel tax to hit the ballot box as soon as March of next year.
The new tax would need to be set at $191 per parcel to maintain the district's current revenue, which is a little less than $2.9 million annually. Some board members said it might be time to bring that number up above $200 per parcel, promising district residents big ticket items to improve the city's schools.
The current parcel tax, Measure C, is set to expire June 30, 2017.
Even if the school district settles for breaking even at $191 per parcel, many home owners in Mountain View will end up paying more as the district transitions away from a tiered parcel tax system, where larger parcels pay the school district more money. Measure C, for example, levied a $127 parcel tax for properties of less than 8,000 square feet, all the way up to $1,016 for parcels larger than 44,000 square feet.
Doing away with this system amounts to a $64 annual increase for most owners of single-family homes, a 50 percent jump from the current $127.
The move away from a tiered system is more of a legal requirement than anything else. In a 2008 lawsuit against Alameda Unified School District over a parcel tax measure, the California Court of Appeals ruled that taxing properties for different amounts goes against state government code, which requires school districts to only levy taxes "that apply uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property within the school district." Alameda Unified now has to set aside $5.8 million from its reserves to cover refunds in the coming years from the ill-gotten tax money.
"The prevailing (legal) interpretation is that variable rate parcel tax structures are no longer compliant with California law," said Charles Heath, a political consultant who has worked on numerous parcel tax campaigns in the Bay Area.
At the May 7 Mountain View Whisman board meeting, Heath said the district's lawyer was "unambiguous" in saying it's time to move on to a flat-rate parcel tax.
"The only legal mechanism at this point in California is a single rate applied to all parcels," he said.
Measure C passed in June 2008 with over 80 percent of the vote, and poured millions of dollars annually into class-size reduction, music and arts programs, after-school programs, support for English-language learners and maintaining libraries. It also contributed to staff development for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE).
Board president Chris Chiang said the new parcel tax could be an opportunity for the school district to make a push for additional funds for early childhood education, more science, education, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, and a continued reduction in class sizes.
"I think that we should try to push for big items and use the parcel tax as a referendum on if the community really support it," Chiang said.
Neighboring Palo Alto Unified School District passed a parcel tax increase of $120 to $758 per parcel, which would bring in close to $14.7 million each year in revenue -- over five times the amount the Mountain View Whisman School District receives.
The story is the same for other nearby school districts. Los Altos School District, which draws about 20 percent of its students from Mountain View, raked in just shy of $10 million in parcel taxes in the 2014-15 school year, which amounts to a flat $790 per parcel. Menlo Park City School District has four parcel taxes currently levied, which in the 2014-15 school year amounted to $6.4 million in supplemental funding for schools.
"I'm raring to go," said board member Ellen Wheeler. "I'd love for us to be able to do more than we currently are able to do."
While Mountain View Whisman's parcel tax doesn't expire until summer of 2017, Heath advised the board to start looking at a parcel tax renewal sooner rather than later to avoid a possible gap in revenue if the tax fails to pass with a two-thirds majority. He said it really doesn't take much "disruption" to fall under that threshold, and the loss of funds would carry significant consequences.
"You probably don't want to wait until that last possible moment to consider your renewal and place that measure on the ballot," he said.
Heath suggested putting the parcel tax on the May ballot next year during a mail-in special election. While board member Greg Coladonato said he would prefer to put in on the June or November ballot, citing that it would be more democratic with the greater voter turnout, Wheeler said it would be a hard sell on a ballot full of other tax measures.
"The reason not to hold it in June is that everybody and their brother is going to have a tax issue on that ballot. Trying to get our school district's parcel tax passed in such a crowded ballot doesn't bode well for us," Wheeler said.