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Districts Credit Campaign Consultants for Parcel Tax Measure Wins

With the help of paid advisers, 7 districts convinced voters to raise their own taxes

schoolBay Area voters approved seven of 11 school parcel taxes measures on Tuesday's ballot in an election that appeared to be driven in large measure by campaign consultants.

The parcel taxes, which require approval by two-thirds of district voters, passed in Cupertino Union, Lafayette, Los Altos, Los-Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School, Ravenswood (in the East Palo Alto area), San Carlos and Sunnyvale school districts. 

Together these districts spent a combined $311,732 on campaign consultants, pollsters and lawyers to help increase the likelihood the measures wold pass, according to figures provided by the districts.

Parcel taxes in two school districts that did not spend district funds on consultants – the John Swett Unified School District in Rodeo and Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City –were defeated. Ballots are still being counted in the New Haven Unified, which spent $8,900 on consultants.

The success of the levies—which are essentially a flat tax on individual properties—suggest that some voters are willing to pay more in taxes to lessen the effect of state budget cuts on their schools. California's budget crisis has forced many districts to lay off teachers and eliminate or drastically reduce educational programs.

The number of ballots returned in Tuesday's vote-by-mail elections was relatively low. The measures reflect a growing trend: school districts are spending general fund money to hire consultants in the hope of netting more public dollars from parcel taxes.

“It is hard to conceive of running a campaign in California to ask people to raise their taxes, and convince more than two thirds of them to raise them, without a consultant,” said Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego. “This is a really tough ask. You are asking people to invest at a time when people in California think there is a lot of waste, fraud and abuse.”

Officials in the Los Altos School District credited consultants for the district’s parcel tax victory on Tuesday, which squeaked past with support from 67.34 percent of voters. The district used $55,000 from its general fund to hire pollster EMC Research, ($18,500); campaign consultant TBWB Strategies, ($27,000); and law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe (up to $9,500).

At their behest, the district stepped up efforts over the last three weeks, with parents and other volunteers phoning likely voters to prod them to send in their ballots. The six-year $193 per parcel tax will bring in $2.3 million a year, helping to soften impending budget cuts from the state.

“The consultant team was absolutely instrumental,” said Margot Harrigan, a longtime member of the Los Altos School District board. “They had a strategy, they were very engaged in the results we wanted to get. They looked at what parents and the community cared about.”

It's not clear if consultants would have helped the John Swett School District pass a parcel measure. The district, which did not spend any of its funds on consultants, blames ConocoPhillips for the defeat of its $60 per parcel tax.

The energy giant has a refinery in Rodeo and would have paid $440,000 a year if the measure passed. 

“The parcel failed due to opposition from ConocoPhillips,” Mike McLaughlin, the district’s superintendent, wrote in an email. “Taxpayers could not get over the propaganda that ConocoPhillips portrayed about the district having money, thus giving them an excuse to vote no.”

Company officials declined to comment on the measure.

Administrators now worry that more cuts from the state will trigger a state takeover. The district has not decided whether to go out for another parcel tax, McLaughlin said.

One outlier in yesterday’s elections was the Pleasanton Unified School District. It spent $85,102.49 on consultants, the largest general fund expenditure of any district with a tax measure on Tuesday's ballot. But it's $98 parcel tax lost by a narrow margin.

The measure needed 66.7% of voters to approve it, but only 65.1% voted for it.

Even so, the district’s expenditures for consultants were not in vain, said Myla Grasso, a spokeswoman for the Pleasanton Unified School District.

“We almost got there, it is just a very high bar to reach,” Grasso said. Vociferous opposition from the No on Measure E campaign helped defeat the measure.

“It was important to try and get some expertise in and get really valid information from the community through a survey. That is part of the reason the board opted to hire consultants.”

The parcel tax would have generated $2.1 million a year for the district. Now, the district faces the likelihood of increasing K-3 class sizes from 25 to 30 students, laying off about four reading specialists for elementary students and slicing some summer school programs for at-risk students.

It is too early to tell whether the district will try again for another parcel tax measure.

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