Modesto schools ponder parcel tax to boost budget

As school districts bleed programs and services to cope with education funding cuts, some are looking into extra revenue streams, such as parcel taxes.

Modesto City Schools officials are in the early discussion stages of asking voters to approve a parcel tax, which would levy a fee on all property owners within the elementary and high school districts' boundaries, including Modesto, Salida, and parts of Empire and Riverbank.

With the district looking at a $20 million to $25 million budget gap for next school year, trustee Steve Grenbeaux said "there's going to be some whacking" at support programs. He'd like to see a parcel tax help fund those areas, including music, art and sports.

California cities, counties and districts can adopt special taxes. Voters must approve a parcel tax by two-thirds, though there are efforts to lower that threshold to 55 percent.

Sixty-seven percent is a lofty goal, but officials said the more specific they are about where the funding would go, the more support they'll get.

"I'd like to see it used for extracurriculars. They're important for the district, they're important to the community," said Grenbeaux, stressing that more discussion has to take place among the board and community members. "Arts, music, athletics — they keep kids in school, but they are extras."

Though some districts have passed parcel taxes to supplement teacher and staff salaries, officials doubt that would go over well here.

"I don't think anybody is going to pass one to increase teacher salaries or build new schools," said Barney Hale, executive director of the Modesto Teachers Association. "I think they would to protect programs, like small class sizes, arts and vocational education academies."

Of the 11 California school district parcel tax measures on the November ballot, seven won passage. They tend to be successful in affluent areas, especially the Bay Area.

For example, tony Piedmont near Oakland extended an old parcel tax and passed a new one in June that levies an average of $2,000 per parcel annually. It will raise about $9 million each year — a third of the district's annual budget. Officials planned to use the funds immediately to save teachers and other staff from being laid off.

That's why critics are concerned that parcel taxes widen the rift between already wealthy school districts and poor ones, increasing disparities in students' educational opportunities.

Grenbeaux said if his district goes for one, officials would work for support from band, sports and arts booster organizations and chambers of commerce to be one of the few nonwealthy districts securing the tax.

Parcel taxes are one of the few ways school districts can raise additional money for operating budgets. The commonly used school bond can be used only for school construction or renovation projects.

The special tax applies to anyone who owns land or a house. It is a flat fee that is not prorated based on the assessed value of property, as is the case with school bonds. Parcel tax law allows for exemptions for senior citizens.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at