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It has been more than two decades since Santa Rosa voters were asked to decide whether to raise funds for the city’s school system through an increase in parcel taxes on residential and commercial property. It will be a little longer still before that streak is broken, after school board members decided this week against placing a parcel tax measure on the crowded November ballot.

Instead, trustees tabled the proposed pair of taxes — for the elementary and middle and high school level — for an election date in the next year or two.

Voters could see the measure as soon as next May, a date several trustees supported at a school board meeting Wednesday. If approved, the pair of parcel taxes would raise $4 million annually over the course of eight years for the cash-strapped district.

“I believe that for a parcel tax to be successful, we need to be exceedingly clear about what it is for,” said Bill Carle, vice president of the Santa Rosa City Schools board.

A tax measure from the school district this November would have been the third on the local ballot for Santa Rosa voters. The first two, added by the City Council last month, include a $124 million housing bond measure and a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would raise $9 million for the city, which faces its own budget gap partly the result of the October wildfires.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest school district with at least 15,000 students, has struggled with its own fiscal crisis in recent years, stemming from a combination of a shortfall in state funding, rising employee health care and pension costs and impacts from past budgeting errors. The district operates on an annual budget of about $170 million, with payroll costs amounting to about $120 million.

San Mateo-based Godbe Research polled likely voters in June on possible uses of a school tax measure, including science, technology and math classes; reading, writing, art, music and drama programs; attracting and retaining teachers; and college and career prep.

School board President Jenni Klose said the funds would be for “people and programs,” and not for administrative pay or facilities.

The board plans to attach more specific uses for the prospective funds, come up with a new timeline, and check cost estimates for a special election, which would be conducted by mail-in ballot. The November and May ballots have the same timeline for the district to receive funds, if approved by voters, said Rick Edson, assistant superintendent of business services.

The proposed revenue measure includes a $50 commercial and residential parcel tax that would raise $3 million annually at the middle and high school level, and a $75 parcel tax that would raise $1 million at the elementary school level. About two-thirds of Santa Rosa voters would support the parcel tax measure, according to the Godbe Research poll. However, the poll was conducted June 18-26, a month before Santa Rosa’s proposed housing bond and sales tax measures were approved by the City Council.

Board member Ron Kristoff expressed apprehension about advancing the regressive nature of the tax, where all landowners, regardless of property size, would pay the same amount. He voiced hope that the California’s next governor would see fit to send more money to the state’s public school system.

“We are woefully underfinanced, but to put it on the backs of certain homeowners is not necessarily fair,” Kristoff said. “I think it’s very important to point that out and understand what this means to our community.”

Klose said it’s unfortunate that a regressive tax is one of the few options the district has, but she holds little faith in any increase in state funding.

“We just have limited tools. This is it,” Klose said. “I think we need to take advantage of time, if we’re going to put it on the ballot in May, which is what I support at this time.”

The decision to bypass the Friday deadline for the Nov. 6 ballot stood in agreement with an approach endorsed by the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, which advocated waiting until May at the earliest to build consensus and a stronger tax proposal.

“Let’s slow down and get this right,” SRTA President Will Lyons told the board.

Board member Frank Pugh also agreed the May ballot would be better and hoped history wouldn’t repeat itself.

“We need to remember — and maybe I’m the only one who remembers this — that we had done a parcel tax before in the district for both elementary and secondary, and it failed,” said Pugh, who was first elected to the board in 1990.

Santa Rosa voters in 1995 favored that tax by a margin of 57 percent, short of the two-thirds majority needed for approval. It was the last time the district proposed a parcel tax to voters, finding much more success with bond measures tied to buildings and maintenance.

Homeowners who are over age 65, disabled or low-income and receive Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance are exempted from parcel taxes levied by school districts under a 2016 state law. However, homeowners who lost their homes in the October wildfires would likely have to pay the parcel tax if it passes.

“I just want the board to be mindful that you would be adding another straw ... to a very full camel’s back,” board member Evelyn Anderson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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