Education is one of the crown jewels of Piedmont. No one will dispute that. The community points out with pride that Piedmont's score on the 2011-12 California Academic Performance Index (API) puts the district at No. 1 in Northern California and third in the state.
The sheer excellence of all of the public schools -- from grade school through high school -- is one of the things that makes Piedmont such a special place to live. Now, Piedmont voters are being asked to approve a school parcel tax -- Measure A on the March 5 special election ballot -- to raise $9.5 million a year over eight years, or about 30 percent of the Piedmont Unified School District budget.
Piedmonters have a history of approving school parcel taxes. They've overwhelmingly voted for it six times, dating back to 1989. Measure A calls for a flat tax of $2,406 per parcel, a decision that was made in light of the state Court of Appeals ruling in Borikas vs. Alameda Unified School District on Dec. 7, 2012. The court held that school parcel taxes must be uniform for all parcels with two narrow exemptions in the statute. The court has since reconsidered its decision, scheduling a rehearing on the issue. But no date has been set.
In the past, the Piedmont schools parcel tax has been based on lot size, with differentials for business and multiple dwelling parcels that generally paid more. Under the old formula, the average-sized parcel of 5,000 to 9,999 square feet paid $2,373 per year; parcels of 10,000 to 14,999 square feet paid $2,706; and commercial properties up to 10,000 square feet paid $3,547.
The school board had to make a decision by Dec. 12, 2012, to notify the Alameda County Registrar of Voters of the changes to the ballot language in order to place the measure on the March 5 ballot. According to the Measure A campaign, in 2014 under the proposed tax structure: 29 percent of households will pay more; 50 percent of households will pay about the same, roughly $33 more per year; and 21 percent of households will pay less.
The flat tax -- as well as the fact that there is no exemption for seniors -- has become a hot-button issue in the campaign. Opponents consider it regressive, inequitable and unnecessary and, by their calculations, estimate that its passage will result in a 5.7 percent tax hike of more than $300 a parcel per year for 78 percent of smaller home parcels; an 18.6 percent cut in 22 percent of the largest home parcels; a 42 percent cut in commercial properties; and a 41 percent cut in apartment buildings.
They also point out that other cities such as Orinda and Moraga have excellent schools -- and a voluntary senior exemption. And opponents also note that there is no need for a school parcel tax measure to be placed on the ballot now. The existing Measure B is set to expire June 30, 2014 -- which opponents contend is plenty of time for subsequent elections with another more equitable proposal.
We find all of these arguments by the opposition somewhat fanciful. We disagree with the opposition's suggestion to delay a school parcel tax until the Borikas suit is settled once and for all, which most likely will take years to wend its way through the justice system.
It's too easy to point to other cities such as Orinda and Moraga with a voluntary senior exemption in the pre-Borikas climate. Unlike those cities, which have a healthy commercial base, Piedmont relies mainly on real estate transfers as a source of revenue. Our guess is that if such cities had to craft a parcel tax now, they would go toward a single, flat tax.
Nowhere in the opposition's arguments is there any mention of the benefits of public schools or education to a community's well-being, identity -- and, yes, financial health in terms of higher real estate values. By one estimate, property values in Piedmont have increased tenfold since the parcel taxes have been levied in the 1980s -- and an unassailable reason for that is the quality of the public schools. Here are some simple facts: The state doesn't adequately fund its public schools, including Piedmont's. Since 2008, state budget cuts have reduced funding to Piedmont by 22 percent.
Here are more things to consider: If Measure A is not approved, Piedmont's sterling reputation for education excellence will be tarnished. Class sizes will increase. The cherished honors and advanced placement classes that so many students need for college will be eliminated. And there will be layoffs. And, as a result, property values will suffer. The Piedmonter urges a "yes" vote on Measure A, the school parcel tax in Piedmont.