Friday, April 29, 2011

Bay Area Schools Struggle with Budget Cuts . . . By Paying Political Consultants

The Bay Citizen's Jennifer Gollan has a report on one of the ways cash-strapped school districts in northern California are spending their money: hiring political consultants to push local parcel-tax increases.

It's not that I'm lazy about spending public funds within my limits. I just don't care.

You see, public school districts don't have many options for raising revenue when they find themselves short of cash. One of those options, however, is the parcel tax, a temporary flat tax on property owners in the district. According to the article, a number of Bay Area districts are counting on parcel-tax increases to save them from having to lay off teachers and other staff. But since school administrators don't know the best way to sell local voters on tax increases, they're turning to people who do: pollsters, lawyers, and political strategists who specialize in getting parcel-tax measures on local ballots and selling them to voters. Next week, parcel taxes will appear on mail-in ballots in 11 Bay Area districts; nine of those districts will have spent more than $400,000 on the services of these consultants, hoping that the costs will be offset by the revenues a successful campaign would bring. For example, the Cupertino Union School District spent over $48,000 of general operating funds in the hope that passing a $125 parcel tax will generate over $4 million per year in the next six years. The highest such parcel tax being proposed is the $193 tax in Los Altos; to push that, the Los Altos School District has apparently paid political consultants $75,000.

This, of course, comes at time when everyone from Jerry Brown on down seems to be warning that more state-level budget cuts will force a crisis of apocalyptic proportions in California public education. Yet it doesn't totally square with reality to say that public schools are on the edge of catastrophe when they still have money to gamble away on political consultants. And frankly, this shouldn't sit well with the property owners in these districts, who will effectively be taxed twice by their schools.


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