This isn't an easy time to manage a California school district.
State funding — the primary source of revenue for public schools — has declined almost 20 percent since 2007-08, and deferred payments of the remaining funds have forced local districts to borrow money to cover routine expenses.
This year, schools are again faced with preparing two budgets — one based on Gov. Jerry Brown's spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the other a contingency plan accounting for $4.8 billion in midyear cuts if Brown's tax initiative fails. For the Santa Rosa City Schools, there's $8.3 million at stake.
Against that backdrop, it's easy to understand why Santa Rosa school officials are contemplating a tax measure of their own. Securing a revenue source independent of Sacramento would provide a small degree of certainty to budget planning for the 16,500-student district.
But district officials aren't helping their cause with their cart-before-the-horse approach to the tax question.
Superintendent Sharon Lidell asked the school board to pay for a poll to gauge voter support for a tax measure or bond act that could be placed on the November ballot. We see several problems with that approach.
To begin with, the district won't know the impact of the state budget until voters weigh in on Brown's tax plan. Asking for a second school tax on the same ballot is likely to undercut local support for both measures.
Moreover, district officials want to weigh public support before forming a clear set of objectives. Taxes and bonds serve different purposes. Revenue from a tax could be used for school operations, but bond revenue is reserved for capital improvements, such as new facilities or solar power systems.
Bill Carle, the school board vice president, acknowledged the problem when the issue came up at last week's meeting
"We don't need to start by saying, &‘We need money,'<TH>" he said. "We need to start by setting up priorities. What is it that we want for our districts? What in the way of programs? In the way of buildings? In the way of technology? In the way of curriculum? In the way of staff." Carle added: "We need a list of things we want; you can't just go out and poll."
In recent years, the Santa Rosa district has done a commendable job of seeking public input on budgets via public meetings and online comments. The same process could help identify priorities and inform a discussion of whether a tax or bond act is required.
The prospect of a tax measure has renewed questions about consolidating school districts. To their credit, Santa Rosa school officials have advocated for a study of potential cost-savings from merging area districts. Allowing that process to develop further before pursing a tax also might be wise.
Rushing ahead won't build public confidence in the process, and, if a tax measure fails this fall, winning a second election won't be any easier.