By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Facing $8.3 million in potential cuts in the upcoming school year, Santa Rosa City Schools officials are considering putting a tax measure before voters in November.
Sonoma County’s largest school district is wrestling with cutting as many as eight furlough days, reducing the budget reserve from 3 percent to 1 percent and increasing class sizes.
“We are at a point of almost desperation,” school board member Tad Wakefield said Tuesday. “I feel like it’s responsible to look into it, although I am sensitive to the burdens of Santa Rosa citizens. I know nobody wants to be taxed into the ground.”
District officials are set to begin crafting the 2012-2013 budget without knowing how much money education will receive in the Legislature’s final spending plan or how Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $7 billion tax initiative will fare with voters in November.
Board members could vote tonight on whether to commission a voter sentiment survey to test voters’ affinity for either a bond measure or a parcel tax.
Bonds can be used only for buildings and other capital improvements, such as solar installations, and need 55 percent of voters to say yes. Parcel taxes can be used for teachers, programs and supplies but require a two-thirds vote.
Bonds impose a higher tax bill on more costly homes, parcel taxes assess a flat rate for every property.
Officials expressed some unease with spending general fund money on a voter survey, whose cost is not yet determined, but Superintendent Sharon Liddell said it’s the only way to judge whether the district should press forward.
“If we are going to attempt to get a bond or parcel tax that is going to support the district the way it needs to be supported, we need to be smart in how we do it,” she said. “That means we need to go to our community and find out their views, and we can’t do that without a poll of some kind.”
How that survey is conducted and how the district establishes spending priorities is crucial, said board Vice President Bill Carle.
“You need to set your priorities and say where you are deficient,” he said.
The district should not ask voters to write trustees a blank check without outlining exactly what tax dollars would support, said Santa Rosa Teachers Association President Andy Brennan.
“With people hurting as it is right now, we have to give them specific things: ‘This is going to benefit your child by ‘blank,’ ” he said.
“If money comes in, we need to keep class sizes small. As much as I’d like to tell my members we’re getting a raise, we need to focus on the important stuff — smaller class sizes, no eliminating programs, counselors, things like that.”
Key to the discussions will be whether voters are more inclined to support a parcel tax which, can be used to pay for programs like art and sports, or whether it will be limited to a bricks and mortar bond package.
Sonoma County voters have shown support for school bonds amid years of cuts to education from Sacramento.
Voters in eight Sonoma County school districts approved a total of $141 million in bond measures in 2010.
Santa Rosa has been successful in its last four attempts to pass bond measures: A $77 million high school and $19 million modernization effort in 2002; $12 million for elementary school libraries in 1997; and $129 million in 1991 to build Elsie Allen and Maria Carrillo high schools.
Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.