SMMUSD HDQRTS — Voters in Santa Monica and Malibu will be asked in May to approve an “emergency” parcel tax to help district schools cope with reduced support for education from the state government.

Facing a $12 million projected deficit and having already reduced this year’s budget by $4.5 million, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board on Thursday unanimously voted to put the parcel tax decision before voters during a special mail-in election May 25.

The board has not decided what amount it will ask voters to approve, but has indicated the ballot measure will be for an annual tax of no more than $225 per parcel. District staff will present the board with a report on how different tax amounts would affect the schools on Jan 30. The board is scheduled to decide the exact ballot language at a special meeting, Feb. 1. A $225 tax would raise about $6.6 million each year for the schools.

The proposed parcel tax would require support from two-thirds of voters in order to pass. Parcel taxes assess an annual flat fee to every commercial and residential property in the district. For renters, who make up about 70 percent of the population in Santa Monica, parcel taxes typically translate into rent increases. For example, in a 12 unit apartment building a parcel tax of $225 would likely result in an added cost of $18.75 per year for each tenant.

Santa Monica and Malibu residents and businesses already pay a yearly parcel tax of $346 to the schools. The proposed “emergency tax” would last for five years and would include an exemption for senior citizens, school officials said.

Before the vote Thursday evening, several board members voiced support for the measure and encouraged their colleagues to campaign for the tax.

“Yes, public education is free, but if you want an excellent education it’s not free,” said board member Maria Leon-Vazquez.

In an interview, SMMUSD Superintendent Tim Cuneo said he was pleased the board backed holding an election on the tax, but noted the potential increase would cover only about half of the district’s projected deficit. He said revenue from the tax would go a long way toward mitigating cuts and preserving the quality of education in the district.

“My concern is that when we have to discontinue programs it will take a long time to get those programs back,” he said.

Holding the mail-in election is expected to cost the district $360,000. The school board could have saved $200,000 by including the parcel tax item on the June 8 statewide ballot, but the district committee that studied the tax concluded placing it on a crowded general election ballot would give it little chance of passing.

There are already rumblings coming from residents who are concerned about how a potential parcel tax would impact their budgets at home, saying the district should not ask voters for more money at a time when the economy is struggling and some are forced to cut back.

The day after the Feb. 1 special board meeting to decide details of the proposed tax, the Santa Monica-Malibu Parent Teacher Association council is expected to take a position on the ballot measure.

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