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SCHOOL ELECTIONS : In San Marino : Tax Overshadows Races for Board

Times Staff Writer

Competition for three seats on the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education has been overshadowed by a measure on the same Nov. 5 ballot that proposes a special tax to raise money for schools.

All nine candidates for the school board seats say Measure H, which would impose a parcel tax of up to $145 a year for four years, is the only important issue that faces the district. Eight of the candidates, as well as the existing school board, the City Council and Chamber of Commerce, favor the tax. It requires a two-thirds vote.

Citizens for San Marino Schools, proponents of the ballot measure, say tax money is needed to prevent further cutbacks in school programs and maintenance. They say San Marino schools suffer financially because residents’ high incomes and students’ high scholastic ratings disqualify the district for the compensatory funding that some other districts receive. In addition, San Marino’s steadily declining enrollment means loss of state funding that is based on attendance. The school board estimates that the system needs an extra $700,000 a year.

Many proponents of the ballot measure claim that the school district’s scholastic rating, among the highest in California, helps maintain high property values.

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Opponents of Measure H argue that the school district should trim expenses to meet its budget. They say the 66% of San Marino voters who do not have children in public schools should not pay an extra tax for the one-third who do.

“The most dangerous threat to property values is runaway property taxes,” said Ben Austin, a 69-year-old resident who leads the opposition.

So far, both sides have conducted low-key campaigns. Both have sent a mailing to every household in the district and have stated their opinions in a local newspaper.

All eight candidates who support Measure H either have children in local schools now or have had children enrolled in the recent past. All of the candidates are running for office for the first time.

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The sole candidate who opposes Measure H, and the only one without children, is Kevin Forbes, 18, who graduated from San Marino High School last June and is enrolled at Pasadena City College.

Wants More State Money

Forbes argues that the district should seek more money from Sacramento, the source of most school district funding, instead of from local taxpayers.

“The district is spending too much money maintaining buildings and paying administrators, while it should be closing some classrooms and spending more on higher salaries for teachers,” Forbes said.

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Nancy Bartlett, 42, who has one son in high school, said, “I think the majority of candidates are going to have the same kind of platform, supporting Measure H. What is going to vary is the strengths and skills they can bring to the board.” She has been an educational consultant for the past three years and works for a health-care company.

Bartlett called the ballot measure “a last resort in order to maintain our present system.”

Debby Geisler Bowes, 41, is a curriculum coordinator with the Alhambra School District and has two children in San Marino schools.

‘Major Issue Financial’

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“The major issue is financial,” Bowes said. “The district has made cuts that were painful sacrifices. Next to be cut will be programs and course offerings that we care about. We have to work hard to maintain the effective schools that we have.”

Peter Chen, 43, a mental health administrator with a doctorate in social work from USC, said his two children have “benefited tremendously” from attending San Marino schools.

“The reason the schools are so good is because of support from parents and the community. I just don’t want to see the quality of our education sacrificed” through inadequate funding, Chen said.

A native of Taiwan who has been in the United States for 20 years and has lived in San Marino for six years, Chen said, “with my bicultural background I can be a bridge between cultures.” Enrollment in San Marino schools is about one-third Chinese.

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Attorney David Destino, 41, who has two children in San Marino schools, said Measure H is “somewhat less than an issue, because all but one candidate supports it. Everyone is interested in good schools and financial prudence.” He said he has been working with the district since 1979 as a volunteer on its legal advisory committee.

E. Eugene Kunzman, 48, is a psychiatrist and former pediatrician who now is medical director of the inpatient psychiatric unit of Los Angeles’ central men’s jail. He has two children in San Marino High School.

“I can say all kinds of exciting things about this district but it’s all hot air if there’s no money,” Kunzman said. “Cutbacks keep occurring and district income doesn’t cover its needs. Measure H is a well-thought-out evaluation of our financial straits and it will be necessary to keep schools at the level they’ve enjoyed for many years.”

Tracy Douglas Lyon, 36, is a managing partner of Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, an alumnus of San Marino schools and father of three children who are now students.

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“I support Measure H, but as a hard-nosed businessman,” Lyon said. “We need to concentrate on getting the most education out of the current dollar and only resort to taxes if absolutely necessary.”

Lyon said he wants more attention paid to students who are not high scholastic achievers.

“I was raised in San Marino and my three children are in high school now,” said William Mann, 42, who teaches industrial arts and a computer class in Covina Valley Unified Schools. “I think I can help the schools in several ways, based on my educational experience. The only real issue is Measure H--that’s the real key one.”

Darlene Wills, 44, said she moved to San Marino “from just across the border” of a neighboring city earlier this year. “It cost me quite a bit more to move to a house that is smaller, and schools are the major reason for home prices here. I want to protect my investment.”

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Wills said she owns a business in Pasadena, is a certified public accountant and a law school graduate. Her son attended San Marino High School which, Wills said, compared favorably with the private schools he had attended.

“Proposition H is a very reasonable way to begin supporting schools,” she said. “When you compare $145 for education with the money we spend on recreation and dining out, it is a reasonable price.”

None of the candidates have previously run for public office.

Board of education seats are being vacated by Lois Ukropina, Bruce McGregor and Marilyn Nickelson.

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