Amid the recent discussions about the upcoming election on the school parcel tax measures, there has been no suggestion that our schools are anything less than superb. By almost any metric you could choose we are one of the two or three best public school districts in California, and there is no argument to the contrary.
What opponents of Measures B and E are suggesting is that these two measures are too large; that our excellent schools could and would still be excellent with less funding; and that, indeed, the administration has been wasteful with our tax dollars. One opposition letter to a local paper was even titled “School Budget Out of Control”. Well, when discussing the Piedmont Unified School District, nothing could be further from the truth. The PUSD not only produces one of California’s most successful academic programs, it does so with tremendous fiscal discipline.
Piedmont’s school budget has grown a very modest 3.5% annually over the past seven years – about the rate of inflation and typical for a California district. State and federal funding to PUSD has grown only 2% over the same period, but our district has maintained a sterling academic program despite revenues growing slower than the cost of living. (By the way, some opponents of the measures have written letters claiming the district spending has grown more than 20% in the last three years, but it is misleading to look at such a short time frame with any school funding. Districts are often given lump-sum increases in state funding to pay for mandated categorical programs and purchases – such as textbooks – that distort fiscal trends in the short term. It is much more accurate and much more honest to look at the longer-term spending patterns of a public school district.)
So thank you, Piedmont, for parcel tax funding to offset declining state support of our core academic programming. And thank goodness for outstanding fiscal management by the district.
That fiscal management is also reflected in how little the PUSD spends on administration versus comparable high-performing districts. In 2006/07, we spent only $572 per student on administrative costs; Palo Alto and San Marino spent $721 and $709, respectively; Beverly Hills spent more than $900. Clearly, money spent in Piedmont schools is money spent on students.
Which is why test scores are so high, why PHS graduates go to top universities, and why home values remain so strong. This is an excellent school district, and excellence does not come cheap.
But as we have proven in Piedmont, it needn’t be exorbitantly expensive either. Cost-cutting remains a priority in the PUSD, and the baseline parcel tax Measure B on the June 2 ballot, does not increase the level of tax at all. For fiscal 2009-2010 an average parcel in Piedmont would pay about $2,100. If Measure B passes, in fiscal 2010-2011 an average parcel in Piedmont would pay about $2,100. That’s the very definition of fiscal discipline: costs are going up and revenue is shrinking, but our taxes stay flat and our educational quality remains very high. Yes, the parcel tax can increase up to 5% annually starting in year two if the School Board votes to do so. Such flexibility is the norm for such tax measures and makes complete sense given the steady erosion in state funding to the PUSD.
The second ballot item, Measure E, is a limited emergency measure that would indeed raise taxes slightly, only partially offsetting the state takeaway of $1.5 million from next year’s budget. Even if this measure passes the school district will face a minimum of $500,000 in cuts, which means teacher jobs. There have been steady cutbacks in administrative positions in the district office and maintenance staffs over the past several years. As cited above, our district already runs on a very small administrative budget now; there is no room for any more cuts except in the classroom. And it is important to remember that Measure E is only a three year tax and that it has no option for a 5% annual increase. It is truly an emergency measure that will expire before the core parcel tax comes up for renewal.
Finally voters should also note that the parcel tax measures this time include ballot language that directs the school board to create a formal advisory committee to monitor how parcel tax money is spent and to make recommendations as to the size and scope of any year-to-year increases in the core tax rate (for more information on this and other particulars of the two measures please visit our website www.yesonbande.org).
Any talk about budget disarray, then, is ultimately a red herring. The numbers being cited to prove fiscal mismanagement are deeply flawed and misleading. Again, there’s simply no space for more cuts away from the classroom. The real question now is simple: will we continue to have superior schools in Piedmont? A vote for B and E is a vote to maintain the current level of excellence. A vote against is a vote to dramatically diminish public education in our city.
Please join me in supporting both academic excellence and fiscal discipline by voting Yes on Measures B and E.
Co-Chair Schools Parcel Tax Campaign Committee