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Sonoma County supervisors mull tax measure to fund preschool expansion

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday advanced a proposal to fund preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old in the county, a move they said would require a voter-approved tax increase that could be placed on the ballot this November.

The universal preschool program, in the works at the county since late 2014, was introduced to the board in a package that included a potential quarter-cent sales tax measure that would generate $18 million a year for nine years to pay for the expansion.

Currently, roughly half of the county’s 10,000 preschool-age children are enrolled in day care or classes, some of which are subsidized. The county initiative seeks to make that schooling free for all.

Supporters said such early childhood education improves brain development, literacy, high school graduation rates and long-term career success.

“This is, in my opinion, the most important investment that we can make as a community,” said board Chairman Efren Carrillo. “There is a recognition of the need for an infusion of local dollars to pay for it.”

Supervisors stopped short of endorsing a ballot measure, instead asking for additional polling of likely voters on potential tax proposals. The board also asked staff members to study whether a parcel tax would have a better chance of passing.

The move comes less than a year after the defeat of Measure A, the quarter-cent sales tax measure put forward by county supervisors to generate money for road repairs, one of the most pressing political issues to emerge from decades of infrastructure neglect.

Voters rejected the tax increase last June by nearly two-thirds, dealing a stinging loss to supervisors. At the time, many voters expressed skepticism about approving a general tax measure because the proceeds would not have been dedicated specifically to roads.

But proponents of universal preschool, including teachers, school officials and parents, argued their cause would gain greater public support if put to voters. Advocates pledged their assistance with a campaign if the county decided to move forward with a ballot measure.

They packed Tuesday’s meeting in a show of force intended to urge supervisors to move forward with a funding plan. Dozens of speakers argued that access to education at an early age is critical to long-term well-being and the strength of the region’s economy.

“When kids arrive at school who have had access to preschool, they are better prepared socially, emotionally and academically,” said Jennie Snyder, superintendent of the Piner- Olivet Union School District in west Santa Rosa. “This initiative is essential and we urge your continued support.”

But taxpayer advocates expressed concern about the county seeking another tax measure to pay for programs outside the traditional core of local government services.

“I have concerns that the county is expanding the scope of services it provides, when it’s having such a difficult time paying for its basic core services, like fixing roads,” said Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, which staunchly opposed Measure A. “What we’re seeing here is an expansion of the role of county government, from its brick-and-mortar roles of providing safe roads, public safety, water and sanitation, to becoming more of a safety net.”

Supervisors acknowledged Tuesday that Measure A’s defeat reflected a significant level of voter disenchantment with local government.

But some board members argued that a tax measure benefiting education programs could be different. They characterized the matter as critical, especially for low-income families.

Latino children, now 43 percent of the county’ school-age population, participate in preschool programs at a rate of about 39 percent, compared to the 50 percent rate for the overall population.

“I think this is a very good year to put this on the ballot. I believe that women and Latinos will be energized,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who voiced support for a parcel tax measure over a sales tax increase. “It’s an exciting proposal and I think it has very high potential.”

Zane referenced findings in a county commissioned telephone poll of 603 likely voters conducted in early March. It found that 64 percent of respondents feel there is a need for additional funding for preschool, and 65 percent said there is “great need” for additional child care programs.

But the poll also found that the approval rating for the Board of Supervisors is at a mere 44 percent - a standing that could undermine any future tax measure.

“I think we’re all still shell-shocked from the defeat of Measure A,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lobbied in favor of the measure last year. “One lesson I learned from that is in order for this to move forward, everyone needs to be on board. We have to be spot on.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who acted as the public face for the so-called roads tax, was also skeptical another tax measure put forward by the board would be successful.

“I’m very, very leery of polling. The polling saw support for our roads measure and it failed miserably,” Rabbitt said. “It could be more successful if is put on by the citizens of Sonoma County and not the Board of Supervisors.”

County health officials are expected to bring options back to the board in May.

Their initial recommendation is to implement a government-subsidized preschool program starting with about 2,000 low-income children whose families live below 300 percent of the federal poverty level - income of $72,900 for a family of four. For a family of three, the income threshold would be $60,480, and a single parent with one child would qualify if annual earnings are at or below $48,060.

Preschool programs for just that group of children would cost an estimated $26 million annually and would be phased in over five to 10 years, according to the health department.

That cost factors in a $15-per-hour wage for preschool teachers and a year-round school calendar with full days of instruction.

School facilities and classrooms also would need to be upgraded, according to the county. Health officials say that sum could tack on an additional $5.8 million, which could be covered by state and federal grants.

The preschool slots could be located at public or private schools, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, child care centers or charter schools.

The remaining approximately 2,100 children who aren’t enrolled in preschool would ultimately be covered as funding became available.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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