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September 17, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, September 17, 2004

Editorial Editorial (September 17, 2004)

District gets bad break in tax case

The financially-strapped Mountain View-Whisman School District, already hit in the last few weeks by the surprise resignation of Superintendent Jim Negri, received more bad news this week when a challenge to the recently-approved Measure J parcel tax passed a key test in Santa Clara County Superior Court.

The lawsuit, filed by independent attorney and Saratoga resident Aaron Katz, who is a part-owner in 10 Mountain View condominiums, claimed he should have been able to vote on the tax measure, which will raise $1.6 million annually for the district.

Unfortunately, the district's efforts to get Judge Kevin McKenney to throw out the case failed last week, and now the two sides appear headed for trial. Katz, who is representing himself and the partnership that owns the condos, has said he will appeal the case to the state Supreme Court if necessary.

Although its premise -- that property owners should be able to vote on any matter that influences their tax bill regardless of where they live -- is simple, if Katz prevails, the case could have far-reaching implications for similar parcel tax elections all over the state. Long-standing state laws governing the franchise say you can only vote where you live, regardless of property holdings elsewhere.

But Katz thinks otherwise, and by convincing a judge to go along, his suit has just become a major financial headache for the school district, which so far has spent $50,000 in its unsuccessful effort to defeat the case. Now that it must mount a full-blown defense of the laws governing parcel taxes, the district's legal expenses are likely to skyrocket, taking away money that very likely will come out of funds intended to pay for teachers and classroom supplies.

In addition, Katz is considering asking the judge to put all funds from the parcel tax aside until the case is settled, which could be years from now, a move already opposed by school officials, but that could seriously disrupt the district's cash flow.

It is truly unfortunate that the Mountain View-Whisman district must face this challenge just as it is beginning to draw down funds from Measure J, which was approved by 69 percent of the voters. Money continues to be very tight in the district, which could be forced to close a school next year if enrollment does not increase.

It is remarkable that a long-standing law that authorizes parcel tax votes is not ironclad enough to survive a simple first-round challenge such as that advanced by Katz. We can only hope that the district gets some help in defending the case from statewide groups that are interested in maintaining the right of schools and other government entities to ask voters for additional funding. Otherwise, Mountain View-Whisman will have its hands full providing an education for its 4,300 students, while taking on a maverick lawsuit that should be thrown out at the earliest opportunity.

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