Passing parcel taxes for school districts could require fewer yes votes if a constitutional amendment by state Sen. Joe Simitian makes its way to voters.

Given the current financial situation — which means a number of cuts to local school districts — Simitian, D-Palo Alto, put forward a measure lowering the passage threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent. Such a measure would have benefited a number of local school districts that recently lost attempts to pass parcel taxes. While school officials favor the change, not all are convinced. On Thursday, the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee passed the measure 3-2. If it made it through the Legislature, it would go to a state vote before going into effect.

"When there’s not enough money for the state to meet its Prop. 98 commitment, we could give districts this tool to help,” said Simitian who began working on this bill in 2003.

Simitian recognized a dire situation would be needed to get the few Republican votes needed for the amendment to move forward. But these are dire times, he said. Currently the bill has 21 co-authors from the senate, all Democrats. Thus far, the bill has never received a Republican vote.

"It’s still an uphill battle,” said Simitian, who added such a measure would not solve financial hardships facing districts but could help mitigate losses.

It would still require a double-digit super majority, he said.

Jack Hickey, Redwood City resident and founder of Citizen Advocates for Private Philanthropy, voiced concerns over increasing taxes. Instead, he advocates that public needs should be covered by the 1 percent property taxed already paid. A parcel tax measure should indicate the public wants more funds from the 1 percent to go to schools, for example, over other services.

But for many school districts, a lower passage threshold would make a huge difference.

Faced with millions in potential cuts, the Redwood City Elementary School District Board of Trustees put a parcel tax before residents during a special election earlier this month. The five-year levy required a two-thirds yes vote to pass, but fell short with only 63.6 percent, or 7,300 votes, in favor and 36.4 percent, or 4,181 votes opposed, according to the semi-official results on the San Mateo County Election’s Office Web site.

The measure failed, but would have passed easily with the 55 percent threshold.

"I feel like it’s (important) for local communities to raise local revenue for their local schools. To place that decision in the hands of the minority doesn’t seem democratic to me,” said Trustee Shelly Masur.

The Millbrae Elementary School District faced a similar fate last June when a $78-per-parcel tax received 66.29 percent in favor, just shy of the 66.7 percent needed to pass. Measure P had the potential to generate up to $492,648 for the district annually before the senior exemptions. If it had passed, the money was slated to offset state budget cuts, to reinstate eliminated music, library, instructional and technology aides and custodians, protect teachers from layoffs and to support and maintain the district’s academic programs and classroom health and safety. This was a second attempt for Millbrae which was also unsuccessful in 2007.

San Carlos went to voters twice this school year with more successful results. Officials put forward Measure S in November. The measure was poised to replace Measure D and permanently increase the levy by $75 to $185 annually. Despite polled support, the measure was narrowly defeated with 65.6 percent of the vote — just shy of the 66.7 percent needed.

In May, voters passed a six-year $78 annual parcel tax aimed at lessening the need for cuts in the San Carlos Elementary School District for the coming school year.

In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 39, which reduced the two-thirds threshold needed to pass bond measures for school facilities to 55 percent.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: heather@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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