A temporary parcel tax will come before Santa Monica and Malibu voters on a mail-in ballot later this year as a measure to assist the school district with its financial struggles.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously January 14th to place an emergency and temporary parcel tax on the ballot for a special mail-in election May 25th.

The board has scheduled a special meeting Monday, February 1st to determine the exact tax amount and finalize the specific language of the measure, which is intended to offset a portion of the district’s anticipated $12 million budget deficit.

A parcel tax feasibility committee has recommended that the tax be no higher than $225 per parcel a year, saying that registered voters have indicated “price sensitivity” with such a proposal. The parcel tax should have a five-year term, offer an exemption for senior homeowners, and include annual audits as well as independent citizens’ oversight, the committee recommends.

In a report to the school board, the committee said that while the district has some of the highest performing public schools in the state, it may need to make significant budget cuts or add new revenues due to the loss of $10 million in state funding and the potential for additional state cuts.

After conducting two surveys of registered voters, the 35-member committee found that there were price sensitivity issues and predicted that a $225-per-parcel tax is the most that voters would be willing to support. The measure will need to be supported by two-thirds of voters in order to take effect.

“We feel that the parcel tax is feasible to pay,” Neil Carrey, chair of the tax feasibility committee, told the school board.

Paul Goodwin of Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, which has conducted polling for city elections, explained that voter support for the proposed parcel tax was initially low because of economic concerns but it eventually rose as voters learned of the benefits to schools.

“We found that when voters learned more about the need for the measure and how the money would be spent, support grew, and we felt that it would be a reasonable decision to move forward with a parcel tax at this time,” Goodwin told the board.

Many voters indicated through surveys that they would vote for the tax because they believe in the public school system and feel that schools are an integral part of the community, he said. Renters represent a majority of the Santa Monica population and many inquired about how the parcel tax would directly affect them, but Goodwin said they would be required to contribute a small amount compared to property owners.

With the district facing a projected $12 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year, staff say they have identified up to $8.7 million in possible reductions to provide a minimal balance in each of the next three years. Such cuts could lead to increases in class sizes, reduction in the number of school days, elimination of the elementary music program and the loss of 113 teacher and other personnel positions, staff said.

When facing another significant deficit last year, the school board voted for a small class-size increase in a number of grades and to remove one house at Santa Monica High School, but did not have to lay off any employees.

If passed in the May election, the $225 parcel tax is expected to generate $6.6 million for the district annually, according to the feasibility committee. But school board members pointed out that even with the parcel tax approval, the district will still be forced to make some cuts to offset its deficit.

“Even at $225 we won’t close the gap that we have and we will still have to make cuts,” board member Oscar de la Torre stated when addressing the committee’s presentation.

Carrey said the estimated cost for a mail-in election in May is $360,000, while the cost would be $160,000 if the ballot was placed in the June primary. Despite the lower costs, the June election will include a number of other measures and the committee believes that the mail-in ballot in May is the best chance to receive a two-thirds majority.

Board member Ralph Mechur spoke of the urgency for the parcel tax, saying that the community needs to know that it is the district’s best opportunity to avoid having to cut over 100 employee positions.

Ben Allen of the school board also discussed the need for an earlier election and noted that it will give the district a better chance to make more appropriate choices regarding cuts.

“My concern is that the longer we wait the more difficult it is to make sound decisions,” Allen said.

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