A $360 parcel tax measure in the Menlo Park City School District was approved by 78 percent of voters, county election officials reported at a little after 10 p.m. Tuesday with all precincts counted.
Update: The county's final official vote tally in this election had 5,858 yes votes (79.1 percent) and 1,548 no votes (20.9 percent) with voter turnout of 43.1 percent of registered voters.)
A crowd of backers of the tax measure gathered at the Mama Coco restaurant in Menlo Park on Tuesday night to watch the election results come in.
From the beginning, when the first results were announced at 8:05 p.m., the measure lead by far more than the 66.7 percent margin it needed.
Assistant Superintendent Erik Burmeister, who will become the district's superintendent on July 1, was one of those in the crowd. "I'm grateful that the community has given us this vote of confidence and I'm committed to using not only their financial resources responsibly, but also their trust," he said. "I look forward to a continued conversation about the impact great schools have on our community."
The country reported 5,034 yes votes (78.4 percent) and 1,389 no votes (21.6 percent).
The measure authorizes the school district to impose the annual tax on each parcel in the district for seven years.
Measure X campaign chair Stacey Wueste said the committee worked hard to convince the community to support the measure, which was crafted by the district after two parcel tax measures failed last May.
"We spent a lot of time in the late summer and early fall with a lot of community listening meetings," Ms. Wueste said. The meetings helped the district to "understand where the community was" and everyone to better understand the financial condition of the school district.
The campaign had eight co-chairs, a steering committee of 50 and and hundreds of volunteers, she said.
"I am definitely relieved," she said. "We put a lot of hard work into this campaign."
The district still has "a lot of work to do," she said. "This is only part of the answer. Community funded school districts face a lot of challenges," she said.
School board president Stacey Jones praised the district staff for remembering their priority was "business as usual in educating the kids" even as they worked to educate the community about the district's financial situation.
"I'm so impressed with what our teachers and administrators and staff do," she said.
The work isn't over, she said. "We still have a lot of cuts to make. We still have a big shortfall. We have a lot of work to do," she said.
School board member Caroline Lucas, who had opposed the two 2016 parcel tax measures, but backed Measure X, said she is grateful for the community's support. "It will provide us time to partner with the community to establish a longer-term financial plan," she said.
The tax, she said, "is in no way a long-term solution for the budget shortfall." She promised "to use the time the voters have provided us to focus on developing a long range financial plan that is viable for the district. I welcome input and encourage the community to engage in this process," she said.
The parcel tax measure was put together by the district and its governing board over months of public meetings that followed the failure at the polls of two parcel tax measures less than a year ago, in May 2016.
The district has said that without the parcel tax it faced a more than $5 million budget deficit by 2020, if current spending and revenue patterns continue.
Contributing to the district's financial difficulties are continuing enrollment growth, state requirements that the district pay ever-escalating amounts into the state retirement system, and quirks in the allocation of local property tax revenues dating back to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 that give the district less in revenues per student than neighboring districts.
The district has an existing $207 parcel tax expiring June 30, so the new measure would result in a net increase of approximately $153 a year per parcel.
Because the district has three other parcel taxes that do not expire, total annual parcel tax revenue going to the district would be $1,078 per parcel, plus this year's increase in the Bay Area consumer price index. All the parcel taxes appear as one on the property tax bill.
Property owners 65 and older may ask for an exemption from the district's parcel taxes. Those who already have an exemption would have it automatically applied to the new parcel tax. Once an exemption is in place, the property owner need not reapply, the district says.
Measure X is estimated to raise $2.83 million each year "to be spent only on teachers and essential educational programs," according to the ballot language.
The 75-word statement that appeared on the ballot said the tax is needed "to protect outstanding public schools; retain high-quality teachers, excellent programs, and reasonable class size; avoid teacher layoffs; and sustain property values."
The Menlo Park district is "community-funded," receiving 62 percent of its revenue from local property taxes.
Other funding comes from parcel taxes (15 percent), foundation giving (8 percent), other local revenue (2 percent), the state and federal government (13 percent), and a state contribution to the teacher retirement fund (4 percent).
Unlike most other California districts, which receive state funding based on the number of students, very little of the Menlo Park district's funding increases with enrollment.
The amount of property tax revenue a school district receives per student depends on factors including the number of students, how much property tax revenue it was receiving prior to Proposition 13, the turnover in residential and commercial property, and the number of apartment buildings in the district.
Property tax revenue in the Menlo Park district is $2,500 less per student than in the neighboring Las Lomitas district, and $6,800 less per student than in the Woodside Elementary and Portola Valley districts.
While total property tax revenues have steadily increased in the district in recent years, spending has grown even faster, with the two main factors being enrollment growth, up 40 percent since 2005 to a total of 3,001 students today, and a dramatic increase in the district's required contributions to the state retirement system for teachers and other employees.
The district says if its personnel costs grow at projected rates, its contributions into the state pension system will increase from $2.25 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to approximately $6 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Required pension contributions by all California school districts will increase from 8.25 percent of teacher salaries in 2013-14 to 19.1 percent by 2020-21.
The increases were adopted in 2014 after years of underfunding left the retirement system verging on bankruptcy.
Contributions by the state, and by employees, are also increasing. Teacher contribution rates will rise to 10.25 percent of their salaries (up from 8 percent) over three years while the state's contributions will rise to 8.8 percent (up from 3 percent) over three years. (The state recently announced that the contributions by teachers hired after 2013 will go up an additional 1 percentage point over the next two years.)
Opposition to earlier measures
The two parcel tax measures that failed last May were on a mail-in-only ballot. The taxes had no expiration date, and at their maximum could have increased property owners' total annual parcel taxes to $1,320 per parcel, plus increases in the Bay Area consumer price index.
One measure, which would have renewed an expiring parcel tax, received just over 60 percent approval, and the other, which would have tied the amount of the tax to increased enrollment, received 54 percent approval. They needed two-thirds approval.
After the failure of the two measures the district made efforts to reach out to the public, including expanding its mpcsd.org website to include answers to questions from the public and an interactive budget tool. Presentations from meetings, along with transcripts of public comments about the district's budget deficit, are also on the site, and meetings are now video-recorded and put online.
The district's school board chose a parcel tax amount that will also require some spending cuts even with the parcel tax's approval. Just what cuts to make will be part of the board's budget deliberations in coming months.
The board has agreed on a list of 30 positions that could receive layoff notices if the parcel tax is not approved. The board did this because the deadline to notify teachers that they may not have a position in the 2017-18 school year is March 15.
The district plans to eliminate six to 10 positions even if the parcel tax measure passes. Assistant Superintendent Erik Burmeister said layoffs can probably be avoided due to attrition, but some temporary employees may not be rehired.
Spending reductions to be put into place even if the measure passes include $927,000 that the district had planned to spend in the current 2016-17 fiscal year and $1.3 million in net reductions over the next two fiscal years.
While there was organized opposition to the two parcel tax measures in 2016, this time the only ballot argument against the measure came from the Libertarian Party of San Mateo County and was signed by Jack Hickey of Emerald Hills and Harland Harrison of Belmont, both living outside the district.