Voters to decide school district’s Measure E
Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer
Created: 06/19/2011 09:05:31 PM PDT

FONTANA – The deadline for the area’s first parcel tax vote is 8 p.m. Tuesday.

And many in surrounding cities are going to be watching how it does during this era of rising hostility against government taxation.

For the Fontana Unified School District, Measure E is an effort to gain a dependable funding source at a time when state budget cuts – and payment delays – have imperiled the health of many school districts and compromised students’ education.

If approved, Measure E will cost property owners $8 per month and expire after four years.

There are exemptions for senior citizens.

For the district, the $96 annual assessment will mean an extra $4million a year, which will be directed primarily to three areas: counselors, library services and class size reduction, said Leticia Garcia, vice president of the school board.

Early poll numbers are showing better than expected participation in the mail-in-ballot only election.

As of Friday afternoon, 6,920 ballots were cast out of 52,666 ballots issued, county election officials said.

Residents who have not mailed in their ballot should drop them off at the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office, which has extended its hours Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

The Lewis Library and Technology Center will also accept the ballots until 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Fontana Unified’s budget woes, which resulted in the school board’s controversial decision to terminate all 68 of the district’s counselors, was one of the driving forces in several efforts to seek additional funding.

Some of those fizzled in early exploratory stages, board members have said.

At least with the parcel tax, there was a chance – and a history of success elsewhere.

In upscale San Marino, parcel tax measures have been part of the school district’s “bread and butter” since 1991, said Julie Boucher, assistant superintendent for business services.

Residents are still paying $300 annually on the first one and $800 annually on a second one approved in 2009, Boucher said.

The parcel tax revenues are vital, given that San Marino Unified, a small school district, gets little state or federal categorical funding and its state funding sources are shriveling, along with districts everywhere in California, she said.

Years ago, parcel taxes were something small, generally upscale school districts, primarily in Northern California, did.

But with the state budget crises ricocheting into public schools, the pattern has widened considerably, said Lawrence Picus, a school finance expert at the USC Rossier School of Education.

Now, large school districts statewide are looking at a parcel tax election as an option, he said.

“Clearly districts are looking for ways to find additional revenues,” he said. “Under Proposition 13, this is the only option they have.”

Parcel taxes are “very hard, no matter where you are” in California, said Dale Scott, owner of San Francisco-based Dale Scott & Co., which is advising the Fontana Unified parcel tax initiative.

The Fontana Unified parcel tax effort is proceeding now so that if successful, some of that funding could be available the 2011-12 school year, Scott said.

To pass, a two-thirds majority of the votes cast must be in favor of the measure.

The committee to pass Measure E is campaigning while the school district’s unions are staying on the sidelines.

“Our members would benefit from the measure, but very few reside in Fontana,” said Pat Mazzulli, president of the Fontana Teachers Association.

The teachers union held back to see what United Steelworkers Local 8599, which represents Fontana Unified classified employees, did because it has more members who live in Fontana, Mazzulli said.

“We wanted to be a united front,” he said.

Because some 300 of the district’s classified members were either losing their jobs or having hours cut – this year – members were not generally supportive of a new tax, said Richard Bruce, Local 8599 president.

As one of Picus’ students, Imre Meszaros won the top doctoral dissertation award in the Rossier School for his research on “The Political Economy of California School District Parcel Tax Elections,” which was completed last year.

Meszaros said he found certain factors indicated whether or not a parcel tax would fail.

One ingredient for success is to have a community of highly educated people, a factor that works independently of income levels.

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