CUSD board approves parcel tax for May ballot

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Marie Godderis/Town Crier File Photo
Montclaire Elementary School, above, is the one school in the Cupertino Union School District located in Los Altos.

The Cupertino Union School District Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday (Jan. 21) to place a parcel tax on a May 4 ballot, though some board members expressed skepticism about the measure’s likelihood to pass.

“I just am seriously concerned about whether or not we’re going to have the support to get 67%,” said Phyllis Vogel, the longest-serving current board member and a former teacher and administrator in the district.

Parcel taxes require two-thirds approval. The district tried and failed to pass a parcel tax during the March 2020 primary election. Although nearly 60% voted for the measure, it fell short of the required two-thirds.

CUSD is now going to try again, asking voters to support a $398 tax on each parcel of land within the district. That would replace the existing $250 Measure A parcel tax, for an increase of $148 per parcel. The new tax would raise an estimated $14 million annually and last for eight years.

The board’s decision to place the measure on the ballot comes as CUSD faces a tough financial picture. The district has experienced declining enrollment in recent years and made repeated budget cuts. CUSD gets less money per student than many neighboring districts and is primarily funded based on student population by the state, rather than through local property taxes.

Last fall, the district was considering closing multiple schools as soon as the 2021-2022 school year to save money. That prospect met with sharp opposition from parents, who turned out in large numbers to speak at board meetings, sign petitions and attend protests.

The board members have pledged that if the parcel tax passes, no schools would be closed for financial reasons during the eight years the tax is in effect.

As the board formally decided Thursday evening to put the tax on the ballot, only six members of the public turned out to speak. That was a far cry from the number who spoke out against school closures a few months ago.

‘We don’t have a choice’

At Thursday’s meeting, Vogel said she didn’t think the chances for passage looked good, based on the public comments that night, emails sent to the board and engagement numbers for a website meant to gauge support for a parcel tax.

“I understand that if we decide not to go out for the parcel tax, then we’re putting ourselves between a rock and a hard place, because then we’re forced to make some draconian decisions without giving the community one more chance to help us,” she said. “But giving the community one more chance to help us is going to cost us a million dollars.”

That’s roughly the amount the district estimates it will cost to place the parcel tax on the ballot. The fewer other items on the ballot, the more expensive it generally is. The cost of an election is split among the various measures.

Board member Satheesh Madhathil said that since the campaign to pass the parcel tax is just starting, gaining support will take time and requires more voter education.

“I understand the challenges around this, but we don’t have a choice,” Madhathil said. “I think we ventured in and this is the only way in which we can save the district.”

Ultimately, all five board members voted to place the measure on the ballot.

Among the half dozen public commenters at the meeting, some said the board should be closing schools rather than asking voters for more money, while others wanted the board to promise to hold off on closing schools for any reason, including low enrollment.

Although the district has promised not to close schools for financial reasons if the parcel tax passes, it has left the door open to other reasons for closures, including the declining number of students in the district. Enrollment has dropped from a peak of 19,194 students in 2013 to approximately 15,680 in 2020.

The board members generally agreed to prioritize the issue of declining enrollment in the next few months, and work on determining what their process and considerations would be for non-financially driven school closures. However, board members differed somewhat in whether they supported making a firm commitment not to close schools due to low enrollment.

If the parcel tax fails, Superintendent Stacy McAfee-Yao said the board would likely be looking at pulling various “levers” to cut spending starting in the 2022-2023 school year. Those could include closing schools, increasing class sizes and implementing furlough days. Some smaller cuts could potentially be implemented as soon as the fall, McAfee-Yao said.

Beyond the issue of school closures, board member Sylvia Leong said it’s an “undeniable fact that we just don’t have enough funding” and said she wants to make sure that gets communicated to the public.

“We know what we need. We know what our kids need. We know what the district needs,” Leong said. “We just need to make sure that that message is clear to the voters.”

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