By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Cotati-Rohnert Park School District is moving forward with plans to put a parcel tax on the June ballot.
The five-member board on Wednesday unanimously agreed to ask voters to support a $89-per-parcel tax for five years, a move that officials believe could bring in $5.3 million over that span.
A recent feasibility study left officials feeling “confident” voters would rally behind the measure, said first-year Superintendent Robert Haley.
“But it’s a feasibility study. Ultimately, the test is at the ballot box,” he said.
Sonoma County’s third-largest school district is making dramatic moves to shore up its financial footing and stop declining enrollment.
Cotati-Rohnert Park is the only district in the county to be in what the state calls a negative financial status, meaning it is not projected to meet minimum reserve and cash flow requirements over two years.
District officials are preparing to cut $2.1 million from the about $43.2 million budget for 2012-2013.
“The difficulty for us is we really don’t have another place to cut,” said Anne Barron, the district’s chief business official. “We feel like we lose students every time we do those things.”
The district has shuttered two elementary schools and one middle school since 2008. It has increased class size, slashed teacher pay while increasing their benefit contributions, cut instructional days from the school calendar and axed support for some sports.
Down from its peak of about 8,300 students in 1999, the district has 5,900 students and expects to enroll 5,450 in the 2013-2014 school year. Haley has identified 761 students who live within district boundaries but are enrolled in other public schools. That number does not include students who attend private and charter schools.
District officials have held a series of community meetings to gauge interest in re-opening La Fiesta Elementary School. Other options would reconfigure three elementary schools, turning Thomas Page into a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus and restructuring the John Reed and Waldo Rohnert schools, focusing one on kindergarten through third grade and the other on fourth through sixth grade.
While those discussions continue, board President Ed Gilardi said the district’s primary use of parcel tax revenue would be retaining programs and teachers, not adding extras.
“I would love to say, ‘Oh, yes, we are going to add this and that.’ But our priority is to maintain our programs and keep what we have and prevent any future damage the state cuts could have on us,” he said.
The district last put a parcel tax to voters in 2005 — an effort that failed by 26 votes.
Gilardi was part of that effort seven years ago, calling it a “painful memory.”
“It seems, from my point of view, that there is much greater buy-in, not only within the district, but within the community,” he said.
A parcel tax, which requires approval from two-thirds of voters in the district, would assess a flat rate for every property and could be used to fund teachers, programs and supplies.
The board still must craft the language of the tax measure and submit it to county election officials. The deadline for submitting items for the June 5 election is March 9.
Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.