As reported last week in the Voice, Mountain View Whisman School District officials would like to negotiate a larger slice of property tax revenues from Shoreline-area companies like Google. Those property taxes are almost entirely funneled by the city into the "Shoreline Community," a tax district which regularly runs multi-million dollar balances used for large projects.
The practice is defended by city officials as a necessity for improvements and services to the Shoreline area, which in turn increase land values and property taxes for everyone. But school officials say their district needs more help, and point out that the tax district diverted about $5.8 million this year alone from the city's elementary and middle schools.
Council members Jac Siegel, Mike Kasperzak and Laura Macias were staunchly opposed to relinquishing any of the Shoreline Community property tax revenue to schools, while other members were open to discussing the situation with school officials, or at least to learning more about it.
Council member Margaret Abe-Koga, whose two daughters attend a Mountain View Whisman elementary school, was the only one to explicitly say she was open to negotiating new payments to local schools from the Shoreline Community.
"As long as the city can cover its costs," Abe-Koga said, the city could "probably do better" than the $450,000 annual grant each local school district receives from the Shoreline Community.
This year the Shoreline Community is expected to bring in $26.8 million, with $19 million in ongoing expenses and a $20 million reserve.
Abe-Koga said the Stevenson campus, where her daughters attend the PACT school program, had been vacant prior to this year and is in serious need of renovations and a playground. "We are totally grateful we have a new campus but it's a pretty dire situation," she said. And because of a school district budget that is short by an estimated $1,000 per student next year, the size of her daughters' class could go from 21 students to 27 students.
Other Mountain View officials point to a host of services already given to the schools that are uncommon for cities to provide, including field maintenance and gym maintenance at the middle schools. The city reported Tuesday that the cost of those services in 2005 was $2.3 million. Some newer programs are not accounted for in that number, including school resource officers at the middle schools and the city's "Beyond the Bell" after-school program.
Council member Mike Kasperzak opposed opening conversations with the school district that could lead to negotiations over Shoreline funds. "The problem is that (talking about it) sort of creates a false expectation" that more funds could be given to the schools, Kasperzak said.
Mayor Ronit Bryant disagreed. "Talking together, that's how we should do it," she said. "If they have questions we should meet and talk" in order to "see what solutions we should come up with." But she added that when it comes to whether or not the Shoreline Community can afford to give the school district more funds, "I just don't know enough about it."
Council member John Inks also said it was too complicated an issue to make a call just yet, but he said he would be examining the Shoreline Community budget with a new perspective.
Siegel said the tax district was "vital" to the city and that he would not want to entertain negotiations with local schools. "I think it would be a real loss to the city of Mountain View," he said, adding that Shoreline funds are not "wasted" and could be accounted for.
Siegel also said he felt the city was "blindsided" by school officials on the issue. Kasperzak expressed a similar sentiment, saying some are trying to create a conflict when the city already has an agreement with local schools.
"I don't know why everybody is blowing this out of proportion," Kasperzak said. "We have understood this for many years. It's a fact of life in Mountain View."
Even Abe-Koga said she was a bit surprised by the school officials' stance. Until now, she had believed that the yearly $450,000 grant to Mountain View Whisman from the Shoreline Community made up for a perceived loss in property tax revenue for the schools.
Council member Macias, who was asked for comment before last week's story went to press, said there were too many obligations in the Shoreline Community to give up any more of the funds. She blamed local school problems on the fundamentally unequal way in which schools are funded through property taxes.
Council member Tom Means said the schools benefit indirectly from the Shoreline Community because it makes Mountain View a major employment center and increases property values throughout the whole city, thereby increasing school district revenues. He said he is "never afraid to sit down and negotiate a fair and equitable and just agreement, but I'm not sure they (the school district) have much to complain about."
Kasperzak said the city needed the large Shoreline Community reserves to prepare for the worst. Property taxes usually decline after a recession, as they did after the dot-com bust, which lowered Shoreline property taxes to a low of $17 million in the middle of the decade. Kasperzak went as far as to say that there were no guarantees that Google would always be around to increase property values.
"Everybody assumes Google will be there forever — that's not a given," he said. Years ago, "SGI went away and property taxes plummeted."
Several council members pointed to the large expense of maintaining the city's three landfills at Shoreline Park, which will cost $2.2 million this year, a number corrected by finance director Patty Kong who had previously put the number at $200,000. They talked about how unexpected and expensive problems with the landfill sometimes occur, and are required to be fixed by law.