State

Modesto City Schools trustees thinking about school tax

Are you willing to raise your property taxes to support Modesto City Schools' programs?

That's what the district's trustees want to know.

The district is considering paying up to $27,500 to hire a firm with "expertise in conducting voter surveys" to determine how much community support there is for raising property taxes in Modesto.

Trustees will vote Monday on whether to hire a polling consultant.

The Bee is conducting an online poll for free, however, which will gauge community interest in raising taxes.

Modesto residents can vote now at www.modbee.com on whether they would be willing to pay more taxes to support Modesto schools.

The Bee's unscientific poll asks community members whether they would support up to $100 per year in additional property taxes, up to $200 more or no additional taxes. Participants can choose "maybe" if their vote would depend on how the added taxes would be spent.

The online poll will be posted today, and those who participate instantly will be able to see updated vote totals for each option.

"No one has any idea of what people in this community will support," said school Trustee Sue Zwahlen, who is on the committee researching property tax options. "I believe there is some optimism for this (tax proposal passing)."

Before Modesto City Schools could increase taxes, it would need approval from two-thirds of the district's voters. When the tax would go on the ballot has not been determined.

What is being considered is a "parcel tax," which usually is a flat fee on each parcel of property.

Unlike a school bond, which typically raises money for construction projects, a parcel tax could generate funds to preserve or restore educational or extracurricular programs.

Same price for all parcels

Parcel taxes also differ from school bonds because they generally charge every parcel the same amount. So a million-dollar mansion might pay the same extra tax as a rundown old cottage.

No Stanislaus County school district has a parcel tax for education, according to the state's Education Data Partnership, which tracks such funding options.

There have been 503 parcel tax proposals in California since 1983, but voters approved only 273 of them, Ed-Data statistics show. Typically, it has been school districts in wealthy communities that have persuaded voters to support parcel taxes.

The Piedmont district in Alameda County, for instance, passed a parcel tax in June to avoid teacher and staff layoffs, protect counseling, and prevent other cuts to core academic programs and services. Voters there agreed to pay an average $249 per parcel per year for three years.

Modesto City Schools is seeking funding options to bolster its budget. The district, which has had declining enrollment since 2002, must trim its spending by at least $25 million for the 2010-11 school year.

The proposed parcel tax consultant could help the district determine what level of parcel tax voters would be likely to approve, how long that tax should last, when the election should be held and how the proposal should be worded.

Zwahlen said specifics for how the extra tax money would be used depend on what the public wants, and the consultant's survey would help determine that.

Four firms, all of which are from outside the Northern San Joaquin Valley, are being considered for the consulting contract.

Monday's school board meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at 426 Locust St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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