It is hard to imagine a worse time for the Palo Alto school district to go to the voters for the renewal and a 20 percent increase of a parcel tax that is currently providing more than $12 million a year in revenue for district operations out of a $185-million budget.
For many complex reasons, our school district is in turmoil, emotions are raw and many parents are feeling angry and disenfranchised. The heartbreaking loss of four more teenagers to suicide in the last few months and a continuing parade of avoidable controversies have created an unprecedented level of angst, frustration and soul-searching throughout the school community.
In a case of terrible timing, the school board decided to put Measure A before the voters at what may be the apex of disappointment in their lack of leadership and transparency, in the behavior of the teachers union and in the difficulty in implementing the most basic reforms, such as adherence by teachers to a three-year-old homework policy.
High hopes that a talented new superintendent would be able to turn things around by filling the leadership vacuum, build trust and successfully tackle an accumulation of inherited personnel and other long-festering problems have been dashed by one distraction after another and a school board that can't seem to get beyond its defensiveness and deafness to the community's concerns.
The board is neither leading nor allowing Superintendent Max McGee to lead, and both are spending precious time and political capital by poorly managing distractions like the current zero-period controversy.
Perhaps the expectation that McGee could restore trust and confidence and unite and lead the school board and district in a new direction was unrealistic. Perhaps there just hasn't been enough time for him to adapt to the strong political currents and bring about a needed culture change throughout the organization. Or perhaps the governance dysfunction is destined to continue until new school board members can be elected in next November's school board election.
But for the moment, we have Measure A, a proposal to renew and increase the parcel tax to $758 with annual 2 percent escalators. Not surprisingly, there is great ambivalence about it in the community.
As we cautioned in January before the board opted to go full-speed ahead with an increase in the parcel tax instead of a more humble request for a simple renewal, Measure A now appears in real jeopardy of being defeated not because of organized opposition to the tax itself but because too many frustrated parents may choose to use Measure A to send a message of dissatisfaction. With a two-thirds vote requirement, it won't take many to defeat it.
To its credit, the district has done a much better job this time at honestly presenting its financial condition, without threats of the sky falling, in making the case for why we need to continue this additional tax revenue.
In spite of soaring property-tax revenues that will likely exceed even the new, more realistic projections made by the district, we cannot afford not to renew the parcel tax without consequences in the classroom. If Measure A doesn't pass it will return next year at a lower amount for another chance, in time to replace the current tax when it expires in June 2016. It is this re-vote that gives some voters comfort in voting now against Measure A.
But these message-sending voters need to realize the price for a protest vote is the cost of putting on another election and forcing the administration and school board to spend time weighing how to adjust the district's budget for the financial uncertainties.
For better or worse, the revenue from the current parcel tax has become baked into the budget and the district depends on it, primarily to achieve smaller class sizes by employing more teachers. With most of the district's expenses going to personnel, losing this revenue source would force the elimination of teaching positions at a time when enrollment continues to grow.
We sympathize with those who want to use this parcel-tax election to register a protest vote. But this election should be about maintaining the educational opportunities and experiences of our kids, ensuring that class sizes don't grow and implementing additional programs directed at closing the achievement gap and increasing mental health resources, among others.
This newspaper has supported every parcel tax and bond measure to come before the voters in the last 35 years. We believe in the importance of a high quality public education system, in paying our teachers well and in creating the best possible educational opportunities for children of all backgrounds and abilities.
Let us keep our frustrations and criticisms of district leadership separate from the need for this source of funding and vote to approve Measure A.