School District Pondering New Tax

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    Expecting to be operating in a deficit next year, Orinda school district officials are exploring the possibility of a new parcel tax.
    Orinda Union School District (OUSD) Board of Trustees raised the idea at a special funding workshop Feb. 3. Polling for the tax could begin in May, and if there is support, the tax could be placed on a special-election ballot May 4, 2021. It would require two-thirds voter approval.
    Orinda parcel owners already pay a school parcel tax of $509 a year, which contributes to 39 percent of the school district’s $10 million local revenue. Considerations for the new tax include setting a flat rate versus a square-foot rate, expiration date and provisions for inflation/cost of living adjustments.
    School district consultant Charles Heath, a partner at TBWB Strategies, said nine-percent of California school districts derive revenue from parcel taxes. Orinda’s current tax, he said, last increased in March 2009, does not have a sunset clause or provisions for inflation.
    A new parcel tax, school officials said, could help offset gaps in funding from the state.
    Gov. Gavin Newsom has a near record-breaking $48 billion proposed for education in his 2020-21 state budget. It targets increased funding for grades K-12 and special-needs students. It also addresses teacher recruitment and shortages in the areas of science and math. As currently written, a minimal amount of these budget increases will reach Orinda schools, local officials said.
    “This proposed budget is incredibly disappointing,” said Orinda Union School District Board of Trustees President Cara Hoxie.
    According to OUSD Superintendent Carolyn Seaton, “California has the fifth largest economy in the world yet we are ranked 37 out of 50 states in per-pupil funding.” Within California, the OUSD is ranked 998 out of 1,000 school districts in per-pupil funding, she said.
    John Nickerson, superintendent of the Acalanes Union High School District, said, “The governor’s budget is somewhat deceiving. It is grossly inadequate to fund our basic needs.”
    Of Orinda’s budget, 70 percent of revenue comes from federal and state governments. Local sources, including the parcel tax, contribute the balance. Employee salaries and benefits account for 80 percent of the budget. Other expenses include operating expenses, legal fees and books. Legal fees for special education, not including settlement amounts, cost $404,383 in the 2018-19 school year. More than $75,000 in legal fees were paid the first quarter of 2019-20.
    State-mandated, unfunded and partially unfunded expenditures add to the deficit spending. In part, they include teacher and staff training, bullying prevention, special education, student testing and previously negotiated teacher salary increases.
    California’s Local Control Funding Formula, LCFF, a uniform grant base for every student, is the main source of revenue for schools. Teresa Sidrian, director of business services, said OUSD will receive less LCFF funding in each of the next three school years with small variances in spending.
    Charles Shannon, president of the Orinda Education Association and a teacher at Glorietta Elementary School asked, “How do we change the structure of funding? We should be in the top 10.”
    Orinda trustees plan to form sub-committees with staff, parents and community members to advocate for increased state funding.

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