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School Districts Call in Cavalry of Consultants to Push Parcel Taxes

Struggling districts turn to expensive campaign consultants in effort to raise money

schoolBay Area school districts, facing increasingly severe budget problems, are turning en masse to one of the few revenue-raising tools at their disposal: the parcel tax. These levies, a form of property tax, require approval by two-thirds of district voters, and they will be on the ballot in 11 different Bay Area school districts in a mail-in election next week.

The parcel tax votes will test how strongly people feel about preventing teacher layoffs and other cutbacks. Recent polls show that Californians are willing to pay higher taxes to finance education, but tax increases of any kind are often a tough sell on Election Day. Parcel taxes are typically temporary measures that impose a flat tax on all individual properties, though in some cases there is an additional fee based on the size of the property.

The votes will also be a measure of the effectiveness of a growing industry of political consultants who specialize in selling such parcel taxes to the voters. Nine of the 11 districts where votes will happen next week have together spent more than $400,000 of scarce district funds on pollsters, lawyers and strategists, gambling that the expenditures will be outweighed by the new revenue streams that would be produced by an election victory.

“Putting a measure on the ballot is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor,” said Ruth Bernstein, a principal at EMC Research, an opinion research firm with offices in Oakland that worked on three parcel taxes on the ballot next week. “We conduct a statistically valid survey of voters and do the data analysis to help the districts understand it. It requires hours of phoning voters.”

The quandary facing the 18,250-student Cupertino Union School District is typical. The district sent pink slips to some 117 teachers and other staff this spring, which would mean larger class sizes for grades 1 through 3 and 6 through 8, fewer custodians, and reduced library and counseling services. The district is banking on a $125 parcel tax that would generate more than $4.4 million a year for six years, which might mean fewer layoffs and a smaller increase in class sizes.

To maximize its chances of getting the tax passed, officials spent $48,396 of the district’s general operating funds to pay a pollster and a campaign strategist.

“It is money very well spent,” said Phyllis Vogel, vice president of the Cupertino Union School District board and co-chair of the Yes on Measure C campaign. “We could have gone out for the parcel tax, but we would have had no idea how much to ask for or how to build a campaign.”

The proposals on the ballot next week range from $49 per parcel in the Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District to $193 per parcel in the Los Altos School District. Los Gatos, with about 3,100 elementary and middle school students, paid the prominent law firm Stradling, Yocca, Carlson and Rauth; the pollsters EMC Research and the Center for Community Opinion; and the campaign consultant TBWB Strategies a combined $75,000, according to figures provided by the district.

Randy Kenyon, the Los Altos district’s assistant superintendent for business services, said lawyers had helped the district write the ballot language while pollsters collected voter rolls to target voters through phone banks and strategists devised messages for pamphlets.

“We need to go out to the community. That has helped spawn a little cottage industry of experts that help the districts make it through these elections,” Kenyon said. “That’s not our business, running an election. I can’t imagine someone not using campaign consultants.”

It is difficult to pinpoint which ingredients contribute to approval of a parcel tax. Of the 542 parcel tax elections in California between 1983 and November 2010, 289, or about 53 percent, passed, according to EdSource, a nonprofit education policy organization based in Mountain View.

Consultants point to their solid track records. TBWB Strategies, a campaign consultant based in San Francisco, was hired to work on six forthcoming parcel tax campaigns. Of the roughly 80 school financing measures that TBWB has worked on since 1996, about 70 of them, or 88 percent, were successful, said Barry Barnes, a partner at the company.

See an interactive chart of school districts' campaign expenditures on Page 2.

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