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ELECTIONS SCHOOL TAX : Backers of Parcel Levy Push Hard in Beverly Hills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its effort to persuade Beverly Hills residents to vote to tax themselves on behalf of the schools, the Yes on Schools Committee has made 4,000 phone calls, sent 16,000 flyers and letters, posted 1,500 lawn signs, and held star-studded rallies.

The group also hired a professional consultant, raised more than $126,000 and garnered the support of the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the city’s Board of Realtors.

The test of whether those tactics pay off comes in Tuesday’s election.

The proposed tax must be approved by two-thirds of the voters to take effect. It would be levied on each residential and commercial parcel of land in the city for five years. Plots would be assessed $250 to $750 annually, depending on size and use, to raise about $4.5 million a year for the Beverly Hills Unified School District. If the tax fails, district officials say, 48 teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses will be laid off.

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On a recent morning, six volunteers and two paid staffers were stuffing envelopes, entering addresses into a computer, answering the five phones, and logging incoming checks in the Yes on Schools headquarters, a storefront office nestled among clothing boutiques and optical shops in the business section of Bedford Drive. On the walls are the likenesses of Big Bird, Dumbo and rainbows--left over from when the site was used as a toddler’s gymnasium--along with giant butcher-paper “GOTV” (get out the vote) volunteer sign-up lists.

The pro-tax movement boasts more than 300 volunteers, about 100 of whom are teachers, according to Kim Karie, senior vice president of Marathon Communications Inc., which Yes on Schools has hired as its campaign consultant. Thirty students help out regularly, including five high school students who are getting academic credit for their work.

The campaign has done the traditional phoning, coffee hours and door-to-door canvassing with glossy pamphlets. But it has also engineered rallies with television stars and a parade through the business district.

According to financial reports filed last week, campaign contributions have come from homemakers, real estate investors, banks and school board members, most of it in sums of $100 or more.

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Donors include Mayor Allan Alexander, the Beverly Hills Firemens Assn., the Beverly Hills Hotel, designer Fred Hayman, the campaigns of Assemblymen Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) and Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles), who are up for reelection, and Pia Zadora’s husband, developer Meshulam Riklis. Developer and philanthropist George Konheim and Metropolitan Theaters President Bruce Corwin have each thrown in $5,000.

The teachers union, the Beverly Hills Education Assn., has contributed $4,000, and its parent organization, the California Teachers Assn., has given $8,000. Restaurants and other companies have donated campaign T-shirts and food and carnival rides for the rallies.

The campaign has spent $85,300, with $16,500 going to Karie’s firm in the last two months. Karie, whose expertise is field organization, has worked on races for the Beverly Hills City Council and school board.

Also on the payroll are two full-time staffers, Cheryl Richardson, who has worked for candidates in Santa Monica and Orange County, and Marty Nislick, former executive director of the Maple Center, a nonprofit community counseling office in Beverly Hills. Nislick, a product of the Beverly Hills schools, said he will be paid about $13,000 for his three months of work.

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The committee spent about $5,000 for the 1,500 lawn signs and 200 window signs, Karie said. In the last two months, $21,000 was spent on campaign or fund-raising literature and $2,750 on postage.

“The cost of postage, the cost of paper, has gone up, the cost of surviving politically has gone up,” Karie said. “I don’t think it’s a high budget. (Costly campaigns are) all over.”

Yes on Schools is not bashful about vastly outspending the tax opponents, whose campaign is running on photocopies of hand-lettered flyers, $400, and 50 to 100 volunteers, anti-tax leader Sherman Kulick said.

Kulick said he was also relying on the media, cable television airings of an election debate and voter pamphlet arguments to broadcast his tax-revolt and back-to-basics in education message. He charges that the district spends beyond its means and keeps unnecessary frills, such as drama and computer classes.

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“We’re cost-effective, we’re trying to symbolize what we stand for,” he said of his group, the Beverly Hills Citizens for Cost-Effective Quality Education. “Not only does money not buy education . . . money does not buy an election. It’s mind-boggling how much money is involved here, in this little, local election.”

But Bernard Nebenzahl, co-chairman of Yes on Schools, argued: “We have to do everything possible we can. The consequences are too great to take the risk.”

Those consequences of the tax’s failure would be the layoffs of 48 teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses and 35 full-time teacher assistants, clerical and technical slots, according to the school district. Among the casualties would be the Academic Decathlon coach, all elementary school music teachers and computer specialists, and the high school planetarium. Teachers would lose a 3% pay increase, which was part of a strike settlement last fall and which was made contingent upon the parcel tax’s success.

“We are forced to spend that money because people don’t turn out to vote,” Karie added.

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In 1987, the last time the Beverly Hills school district held a parcel tax election, 59% of the voters favored the tax, short of the two-thirds needed. Voter turnout was 25%, or about 5,000 people.

Too many of the registered voters failed to go to the polls, said Anneli Roth, a chairwoman of the 1987 pro-tax effort who is also working on the current campaign. “I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that some were part of our campaign.

“We didn’t know how to reach citizens, or instill in them an urgency,” she said. Many of the tax supporters figured, “It was like motherhood and apple pie: Of course people were going to support our schools.”

Compared to the current organization, the 1987 campaign had fewer volunteers and spent about $65,000, Roth said. Run out of co-Chairwoman Judie Fenton’s home and without a professional consultant, it lacked sophistication, she said. “Everything, everything, was done . . . by amateurs.”

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This time, tax advocates started their planning with an exploratory phone survey in January. The $9,000 survey, conducted by an independent consulting firm, found that a variable-rate tax was favored, while a flat-fee on every parcel--which the 1987 tax proposed--was seen as unfair, Nebenzahl said. More than 60% of the 400 randomly sampled registered voters supported a tax for the schools, he said.

About 10 different mailers have followed, sent to select audiences, such as tenants, parents, senior citizens. Co-Chairmen Nebenzahl and Sooky Goldman, who are civic activists, asked community leaders to give money and “play your part.” A letter signed by several Beverly Hills High School graduates cajoles other alumni with lines from their alma mater.

An army of 200 block captains was unleashed on the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and identifying the position of each household on the parcel tax, Karie said. Pairs of teachers and students have visited the undecided voters.

The committee has tried to phone residents who were missed on the walks to identify their stands and to answer any questions. If people say they plan to vote no on the tax, “We try to engage them in dialogue--to see if there was a misunderstanding that can be cleared up,” Karie said.

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Whether by phone or by visits, the campaign has contacted two-thirds to three-quarters of the estimated 16,000 households in Beverly Hills, Karie estimates.

Both the tax proponents and opponents plan massive door-to-door campaign and phoning this weekend.

Julia Joseph, a 1973 graduate of Beverly Hills High School who was folding letters in the Yes on Schools office recently, said she was volunteering because its failure is “depressing and frightening.” Joseph, whose oldest daughter will enter kindergarten in September, said she “bought into this district at incredible financial sacrifice” so that her children could attend the schools. Without the tax, she said, the quality of education that drew her to the city could suffer.

But, Karie acknowledged, “two-thirds is a hard number to reach.”

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