Publication Date: Friday, March 21, 2003
Businesses slam school tax
Businesses slam school tax
(March 21, 2003) As debate builds county proposes its own tax
By Julie O'Shea
Calling it "inequitable" and "dead on arrival," business representatives last week openly criticized a $2.5-million tax measure the Mountain View-Whisman School District says it desperately needs to maintain its education programs.
Businesses complained they would be forced to shoulder the brunt of the tax, which would levy a 5-cent-per-square-foot fee on all buildings in the city. And at a Chamber of Commerce-organized meeting last week, industry representatives further chided the elementary and middle school district for putting it on the June 3 ballot without consulting them first.
But school officials said the tax has been in the works for years and is needed to avoid teacher layoffs in the 4,400-pupil district.
If the measure fails, Superintendent Jim Negri said he won't be able to rehire some 30 teachers who received pink slips March 15. The tax, dubbed Measure E, would need a two-thirds majority vote to pass.
Business leaders said they might not support the measure, since their large offices would account for most of the tax.
The average homeowner would pay about $70 a year, and senior citizens over 65 could apply for an exemption. The tax would have to be renewed after five years.
But the Mountain-Whisman measure isn't the only new education tax being floated around the Silicon Valley.
Earlier this week, the Blue Ribbon Task Force, a community advisory group, recommended Santa Clara County schools bring a countywide tax measure to the ballot in 2004.
The measure -- either a parcel tax or sales tax -- would help funnel in millions of dollars into school programs and teacher salaries.
Schools chief Colleen Wilcox will respond to the group's recommendation during her "State of the Schools" address on May 15.
A business survey
Meanwhile, the Mountain View Chamber -- after its public policy committee grilled Negri on the tax at a March 12 meeting -- sent out a survey to local businesses asking for their input on Measure E. Results could be made public sometime next month, said Chamber President Carol Olson.
"This has been one of the most dismal weeks of my career," Negri -- who sent layoff notices to dozens of teachers last week -- told business leaders who fired questions at him.
Mountain View-Whisman has a $31 million operating budget and stands to lose $1.3 million in state funding next year if Gov. Gray Davis' plan is pushed through, Negri said.
A consultant hired by the school district said the average commercial building in Mountain View is 7,420 square feet, which puts those business owners' tax bills at $370 a year. However, the city's largest businesses -- like Hewlett Packard -- say their bill could be $50,000.
"This seems very inequitable. I don't think it was thought out very well," said Jeff Dennison of the Tri-County Apartment Association, a landlord advocacy group, who estimated the business community would pay 65 percent of the tax.
"It just seems like you want to soak the businesses," Dennison told Negri during last week's meeting.
Negri said that wasn't the case. The school district, he said, had studied a number of options and the 5-cent-per-square-foot tax was the only one that would make a "noticeable difference."
Nonetheless, business reps said their tax burden would be unfair, and they'd find it hard to support the measure.
However, they said, coming out in opposition to the tax may not be wise. After all, it was repeatedly pointed out during the Chamber meeting, Mountain View businesses value public education.
"We may have to remain neutral," said Nancy Noe of ALZA Corporation to the nods of others around the table.
Business leaders were skeptical the measure would pass at the polls, and one suggested that businesses should just sit back and watch the measure die on its own.
They further questioned why the school district is expanding as corporations across the county have cut back.
Negri said the district has seen a spike in its enrollment, and with declining state funding it needs the tax to maintain current services.
Pre-campaign polls conducted by the district show 47 percent of residents support the tax.
Still, "a $50,000 hit is a big hit to us," said Jason Rodriguez, a Mountain View Hewlett Packard employee and vice president of the Alum Rock School Board in East San Jose.
"It is difficult enough to reach a two-thirds threshold without any active opposition. ... It would be very hard to come out in favor of this," he added.
Members of the Chamber group decided they should conduct a poll before taking a public stance on the issue. The group will eventually make a recommendation to the Chamber's board of directors.
"This happened very fast. I don't see how this board can come out in favor of this," Dennison said shortly after Negri and tax campaign co-chair Sherri Nichols excused themselves from the meeting.
"The business community is committed to fair funding solutions," Dennison said, but "we'd like to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the residential community."
He suggested the group table the issue to give other companies a chance to weigh in.
In the meantime, business leaders said they are worried about the issue getting skewed in local newspapers.
E-mail Julie O'Shea at joshea@mv-Voice.com