Of the eight school districts that feed into the , the Redwood City school district is the only one without additional funds from a parcel tax. At the May 3 special election, voters approved parcel tax extensions for the San Carlos school district and the Ravenswood school district.
As the state continues to cut school districts’ budgets, districts must find other creative ways to keep themselves afloat. But in Redwood City, a parcel tax has not been one of them. Three times, dedicated residents have placed a parcel tax on the ballot, once in 1993, 2005 and 2009. Three times, it failed.
Of the eight districts, the Redwood City district receives the least amount of funding. The district received base funding of $4,750 in 2009-10 for each of its 9,200 students from a combination of property taxes and state monies based on student attendance. The Woodside Elementary District, in contrast, received approximately $11,400 per student because of the city's much higher property taxes. Including community based funding, like parcel taxes and fundraising efforts, Redwood City received $5,251 and Woodside received $17,320.
“The huge inequity is criminal,” said Superintendent Jan Christensen at a budget forum at John Gill Elementary on Monday. “We’re not trying to insinuate that Woodside should receive less, we’re just trying to show the extreme discrepancy.”
Many of the school districts in this area are “basic aid districts,” which means that these districts collect enough property tax to meet and exceed the minimum amount of funding guaranteed by the state, according to the school’s website. Basic aid districts, like Woodside, are able to keep property tax revenue that goes above the minimum level, or revenue limit.
In contrast, Redwood City’s property tax revenue is not enough to meet that revenue limit and receives state aid to make up the funding gap, like 90 percent of districts in the state. State aid is based on a complex formula, largely based on student attendance, size, historical spending patterns and other variables. The chart (attached) shows the large inequities between basic aid districts and revenue limit districts.
A $98-100 annual tax would generate approximately $2 million for the district, according to the district’s Chief Business Official Raul Parungao. The 2009 parcel tax measure fell short by just 4 percent, or approximately 1,000 votes, of the two-thirds needed to pass. State Senator Joe Simitian tried to pass a bill in 2009 that would have reduced the necessary 66 percent to just 55 percent, the amount needed to pass a general obligation bond, according to Parungao.
But campaigning for the parcel tax costs money as well. However, the district is not allowed to spend any money on parcel tax campaigns, so the approximately $130,000 spent on the 2009 campaign had to be generated by donations.
“We’ve just been doing more with less,” said district spokesperson Naomi Hunter.
“We’re way too efficient,” Parungao agreed. “We’ve been using technology to compensate for our lost staff.”
The district went from 16 to nine employees in the technology department over the past few years, he said. To compensate for the lack of staff, Parungao explained that teachers could solve their own computer problems by watching pre-recorded podcasts on their own time without the district having to send over a technician.
State Impacts on Local District Budgets
The state has also made life difficult for the district. In March, there were $11.2 billion of state budget cuts, of which schools were not spared, even worse than during the Great Depression.
If the state legislature does not pass the tax extensions, the school year could be shortened to 177 days, less than the standard 180. The school board meeting on Wednesday will address three potential scenarios.
Over the last three years, the district has lost $13 million in funding, but its budget has continued grow, naturally. Four years ago, the district had an $81 million budget with around 8,000 students. The budget has stayed the same but the number of students has grown to 9,200. Student to teacher ratios have grown dramatically from 20:1 to 30:1.
Rather than paying the districts monthly, the state defers payments, forcing the district to borrow millions of dollars. It borrowed $15 million this school year, and Parungao predicts that it will have to borrow $18-20 million in 2011-12. Though the district does eventually receive the money, it must pay interest on the loans, money that could be used to pay a teacher’s salary, he said.
The state earmarks certain funds as supplemental, or “categorical” funds, for things like after-school programming, subsidies for socio-economically disadvantaged families. These funds can only be used for their allotted purpose.
“Yet it’s unclear why the state thinks that an after-school reading program would be better than keeping a teacher who could teach reading during the regular school day,” Parungao said.
Schools that dip into these supplemental funds for general use—like teachers’ salaries—can face severe penalties from the state. The Newark school district had to pay $300,000 for doing this.
And the state requires districts to scrape together enough money for programs like special education, but does not provide the financial backing to run them. These and other unfunded mandates have left the district pulling money from their base funding that is used to pay teachers’ and administrators’ salaries.
Because the district has contractual obligations with the teachers’ union, it has little room to negotiate salary, if at all.
Dependence on Local Fundraising
As the state continues to slash school’s budgets, schools are increasingly relying on outside fundraising efforts.
The Redwood City Education Foundation, a non-profit fundraising organization for the district, hosted its Friday night, which raised $110,000 last year. For the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the foundation raised $463,000, money that was able to , who otherwise would have been laid off.
This money pays for outdoor education, SMART science and technology grants and Art-in-Action classes. This money allows students like Javier Santos, 13, and his fellow Hoover School eighth graders to take field trips to the Exploratorium.
On May 24, local “Wake Up California!” rallies will be held around the state to inform community members of the state’s funding crisis. From 7:30 to 9 a.m., Courthouse Square will be filled concerned citizens supporting K-12 education.
How to Solve the Funding Crisis?
Parungao highlighted Alameda County as an example, which similarly has 80,000 students. But instead of the 24 school districts that San Mateo County has, Alameda only has four. The county only needs to pay four superintendents, four assistant superintendents, “four me’s,” he said. Consolidation is a possibility, but the likelihood of districts like Woodside and Las Lomitas agreeing to combine with Redwood City is unlikely because of their much higher funding due to higher property taxes. In contrast, Redwood City has 64.6 percent of students on the free or reduced lunch program, which has a high correlation with the city’s poverty level, Parungao said.
The purely mathematical way to bring more funding to schools would be to increase property value to generate higher taxes, or reduce the number of students in the district, Hunter said.
But on a more pragmatic level, Hunter said she believed that as the funding issue received more “air-time,” community members would continue their grass roots efforts to reform California's education system.