SMMUSD HDQTRS — Voters will be asked in a special election in May to support an “emergency” $198 per parcel property tax to prop up the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, which is facing a projected $14.5 million deficit.

In a nod to the recession, the board decided not to ask for $225 per parcel, which a district committee had determined was the maximum feasible amount voters might support.

Two-thirds of voters in Santa Monica and Malibu would have to approve the measure in a special mail-in election scheduled for May 25 in order for the tax to take effect.

The school district aims to raise $5.7 million with the tax, less than half the latest deficit projection based on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed state budget.

Cuts to programs, teacher layoffs and furlough days will all be necessary even if the tax passes. But the additional tax revenue would lessen reductions to elementary school music programs, high school sports and the number of security officers and school librarians.

The proposed tax would require all residential and commercial property owners to pay the $198 assessment on each parcel, regardless of property size, which critics have blasted as being unfair for homeowners and small property owners. The measure includes a tax exemption for senior citizens.

The school board coalesced around the $198 tax after a nearly two-hour discussion Monday night. In adopting the amount the board concurred with Superintendent Tim Cuneo’s recommendation.

Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez initially voted against the $198 tax, saying she thought the ballot measure should seek no more than $175 because of the struggling economy and the hardships families are facing. Minutes after going into closed session, the board reconvened and Leon-Vazquez changed her vote to make the board’s decision in favor of the $198 tax unanimous. School board member Oscar de la Torre did not attend the meeting.

In comments before the vote, Leon-Vazquez said the district should act quickly to implement fundraising programs that the district’s Financial Oversight Committee has identified to shift some of the burden away from tax payers. She said the district should tap its alumni who have moved out of the area to contribute to the district.

Board member Jose Escarce led the charge for the $198 amount, saying he believed it represented the board’s best chance to pass a tax that would provide a cash influx of substantial benefit to the district. He argued against lower amounts, saying a tax of $175 per parcel would bring in $700,000 less, representing a loss of 10 more teachers.

But he noted there was some risk involved with asking voters to contribute nearly $200 per parcel on top of an existing, permanent $346 per parcel tax.

“If we adopt this recommendation and we get 66.3 percent of the vote, obviously we’ll kick ourselves, there’s no question,” he said. “On the other hand, I think it’s the best shot we have to save the most that we can for our district.”

Before voting to hold the special election, the board spent $61,500 to hire Goodwin Simon Strategic Research to survey voters’ attitudes toward various tax amounts.

The firm’s poll showed 61 percent of those queried supported a parcel tax of $16.50 per month, or $198 per year, to the school district. Sixty percent said they would approve paying $225 per year and 55 percent approved of a $425 per parcel tax, an amount high enough to erase all or nearly all of the district’s deficit.

Despite the polling, Paul Goodwin, a principal of the research firm, said there was still a substantial amount of uncertainty in the numbers. Before the vote he told board members there was no way to know how many more voters would support a tax of $198 compared to a tax of $225.

“I can tell you that less is better than [more] in terms of getting votes, but we don’t know how many more votes” a lower tax will garner, he said.

Jan Maez, the school district’s chief financial officer, said the superintendent recommended the lower amount because of the perceived psychological benefit of being under the $200 mark and because the poll indicated price sensitivity would be a factor in the election.

A campaign committee to urge passage of the tax is being formed, said Rochelle Fanali, a co-chair of the effort. She said past campaigns to support public schools have attracted a broad cross section of the community.

“We will probably see even more [support this year] because there is so much at stake,” she said.

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