It looks like West Contra Costa County voters will soon have another chance to vote on ballot measures for local schools.
Buoyed by new surveys showing support for revenue measures for West Contra Costa schools, the school board Monday night endorsed two ballot measures for the November ballot – one for extending the current parcel tax for academic programs and the other for a construction bond to rebuild or upgrade aging schools.
The vote came after 14 speakers, including members of the newly formed grassroots group called Support West County Students, appealed for board support of new revenue measures. Most favored a parcel tax, and a couple urged the board to delay a ballot measure until March when there will be fewer competing state and local tax measures on the ballot.
The ambitious unanimous action by the board of the West Contra Contra Costa Unified School District at DeJean Middle School in Richmond came after the five-member panel received surprising news of solid public support for the measures.
Telephone surveys earlier this month showed enough support for either a new parcel tax measure or a bond measure to pass, while support for both measures together – while not as strong – indicated a potential for passage depending on the amount of the parcel tax.
The results – following the narrow defeat of the Measure K parcel tax for West County schools in the June election – surprised and delighted school board members and community supporters of a new tax. Even the head of the survey firm said the findings were beyond what he expected.
"What this is saying," said Bryan Godbe, president of Godbe Research, "is that without a lot of information, you can win both of these – together." He paused to let the news sink in, and added, "I was a little surprised myself."
The surveys by Godbe's firm showed 74 percent of voters who were not given a lot of information about the measure would be likely to approve an extension of the current parcel tax, which is 7.2 cents per square foot, and that a nearly equal percentage, 73.3 percent, would be likely to vote for an increase of 3 cents a square foot, as had been proposed by Measure K. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent, Godbe said.
A parcel tax needs two-thirds approval to win. Measure K received a 65.52-percent yes vote.
For a bond measure, the survey showed 64.2 percent of voters who received a short description of the proposal would support it. A bond measure, which also would be added to property tax bills as a percent of assessed valuation, needs 55 percent of the vote to pass.
The board opted not to try for an increase in the parcel tax, as sought under Measure K, but to ask for a five-year extension of the current tax, which expires June 30, 2014. The bond measure would call for a $360-million, 10-year bond program that add $48 per $100,000 of assessed valuation on property tax bills.
Godbe indicated that combining an increased parcel tax with the bond measure may not be advisable given the lower support for that combination than for an extension of the current parcel tax along with the bond measure.
Extending the current parcel tax, board members noted, would not allow the district to restore the when the board adopted this year's budget on June 27, following the defeat of Measure K. But, as Board President Charles Ramsey noted, extending the current parcel tax gives the district more time to win voter support for an increase later, especially if the state tax measures fail in November and trigger a $12-million cut in district funding.
Legally, the vote Monday night did not place the measures on the ballot. It instructed district staff to prepare the measures for board adoption at an Aug. 1 meeting. The deadline for submitting ballot measures is Aug. 10. Ramsey said after the meeting that the vote represented the board's decision on whether to go forward with the measures.
Board member Tony Thurmond called going for both measures in November "a very risky proposition," adding that the poll results were "pleasantly surprising and encouraging."
When the board agreed at a special July 2 meeting to do a survey, it decided to hire Godbe Research to ask only about a parcel tax boost, and explicitly ruled out a bond measure. But a community political action committee, For the Children of West County, commissioned Godbe to poll opinion also on the bond measure and on extending the current amount of the parcel tax for schools. The results of both commissions were combined into a single report presented to the board Monday night.
Board member Antonio Medrano said he had favored going for only a parcel tax at the July 2 meeting, but that he changed his mind after talking to constituents in Pinole, Richmond and San Pablo and seeing that "people's eyes just woke up" when they realized a bond measure could be used to fix or replace elementary schools that are badly in need of upgrades like Grant, Olinda and Lake.
Ramsey also noted the public support shown in the surveys for fixing run-down schools, noting "the fact that we have several of our schools in Richmond, Grant, in San Pablo, Lake, and other schools that haven't gotten any of their fair share. And the results tell us that the public wants to support those schools to be able to move forward."
He acknowledged that a "substantial campaign" will be needed to win passage.
Medrano said he's confident, based on the poll surveys, that both measures can be passed – with a lot of work.
"Looking at the evidence that came up tonight about the real possibility of not only passing a parcel tax with no increase and a bond measure, I'm convinced that we can do both," he said.
"We'll work ourselves to death," Medrano continued. "We'll go out to the communities and reach out from one end of the community to the other and say, 'This is what we're doing. In the county we have Crespi, in San Pablo we have Lake, in Pinole we have Collins and Shannon, and in Richmond we have Grant and Olinda. All areas need serious support and serious rebuilding of those schools.'"
Ben Steinberg, parent of a second grader at Mira Vista Elementary School and acting leader of Support West County Students, said the 16-day-old group invites all who would like to attend to a parcel tax strategy meeting Wednesday night at a place yet to be announced. Contact information for the group, included in a Letter to Editor they wrote to Patch, is phone (510) 255-1834 and e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Passing a parcel tax, whenever it goes on the ballot, will not be easy," Steinberg said. "It will require relationships, coordination, resources and allies."
In the surveys, Godbe Research interviewed 601 voters for a renewal of the current parcel tax and the bond measure and 602 voters for a measure that would renew and increase the parcel tax by three cents.
A 21-page report summarizing the survey results was handed out at the school board meeting and is attached to this article.