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PD Editorial: Self-help for schools faced with cuts

First-graders at Roseland Elementary, one of the schools that could upgraded with proceeds from bonds on the November ballot.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 28, 2012 at 3:38 p.m.

As recently as five years ago, California ranked in the top half of states for education spending.

Between 2007 and 2010, the state dropped from 23rd to 35th, according to census data released this summer.

Along the way, many schools cut five days from the calendar, classes grew larger, and enrichment programs and extracurricular activities evaporated. Using the census figures as a yardstick, California spends 12 percent less on K-12 education than the national average, and another round of cuts is possible following the election in November.

Here in Sonoma County, some programs have been spared thanks to taxpayers committed to providing a well-rounded education for our next generation of community leaders.

In some districts, voter-approved parcel taxes pay for smaller classes, library materials, even a full 180-day school year. Voters also have authorized bonds to renovate aging schools and make upgrades such as solar power systems that cut energy costs, freeing general fund money for classroom programs.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide on parcel taxes in four west county school districts:

• Measure C renews a tax in the Shoreline Unified School District, which serves western Sonoma and Marin counties. The tax, first approved in 1984, is presently $184.70 a year and goes up 2 percent annually, increasing at the same rate as property tax assessments.

• Measure K renews a $48 tax in the West Sonoma County Union High School District.

• Measure L renews a $48 tax in the Fort Ross School District.

• Measure O renews a $76 tax in the Sebastopol Union School District.

Voters approved the West Sonoma, Fort Ross and Sebastopol parcel taxes in 1993, and each has been renewed twice. All four parcel taxes would expire in eight years unless voters approve an extension. Parcel taxes require a two-thirds majority for approval.

There also are three school bonds on the Nov. 6 ballot:

• Measure M is a $6 million bond act in the west county's Gravenstein Union School District.

• Measure N is a $7 million bond act in the Roseland School District.

• Measure P is a $4 million bond in Petaluma's Wilmar School District.

Fifty-five percent is needed for approval. Bonds are loans, repaid via property tax bills, and each of these is projected to cost $30 a year per $100,000 of assessed value.

Critics say the bond measures enable poor financial planning, authorizing school districts to take out long-term loans for assets such as computers that will be obsolete long before the debt is retired. They also say districts should set money over time, instead of borrowing, to pay for roof repairs and other maintenance.

Indeed, school districts should match long-term loans with long-term assets such as building renovations. They also should steer clear of deferred payments and other gimmicks that raise the cost of borrowing. But at a time when state funding for operations is declining, it's hard to tell schools to cut more classroom programs so buildings can be fixed at some distant time in the future.

The Press Democrat recommends approval of Measures C, K, L, M, N, O and P on the Nov. 6 ballot.

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