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IRVINE : Tax for Schools to Go Before Voters

With state funding lagging behind increasing costs, the Irvine Unified School District board this week decided to call a special election June 4 to let voters decide on a parcel tax of $35 a year.

The tax, if approved, would last for four years and raise about $1.4 million a year. Each parcel of land in the district would be taxed, although landowners 65 years and older could apply for an exemption.

The extra income would help make up an estimated budget deficit next year that could reach $3.3 million, district officials said.

“To cut $3.3 million or $2 million or even $1 million out of our budget is going to hit hard,” board member Margie Wakeham said. “It is truly time to take destiny into our own hands and do something about it.”

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Last year, the board cut $2.4 million from the current year’s budget, canceling some music programs and cutting back on busing, psychologists and janitors. But district officials said more will have to be cut from next year’s budget, which takes effect in July. The board recently formed a task force to suggest where the cuts should be made.

Board members said Tuesday they don’t like the idea of a new tax but think property owners will be willing to pay $35 a year per parcel to keep budget cuts from hurting education.

“We have no choice tonight,” board President Helen Cameron said. “We have to put this on the ballot, and that’s a difficult thing for me to say.”

Funding for public education in the state budget proposed by Gov. Pete Wilson looks bad for all other public school districts in California, Deputy Supt. Paul H. Reed said. Even if the tax passes, it will probably only fund part of the projected deficit, he said.

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“I do not believe we are in a potential crisis,” trustee Michael B. Regele said. “We’re in a crisis.”

Board members agreed Tuesday that they will have to conduct a large campaign to let voters know why the money is needed. Under state law, the tax measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

Because the district cannot spend money on the campaign, it will form a private committee to raise funds and conduct the campaign, Reed said. A consultant estimated that a successful campaign would cost about $60,000.

School district officials in Los Alamitos credited their large, grass-roots campaign last April with persuading votes to approve a $13-million bond measure to fund school improvements. The bond measure was approved by 70.9% of voters.

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However, most proposed tax measures for public schools fail. In 1989, for instance, voters in the Capistrano Unified and Westminster school districts defeated school-funding tax measures. And in 1983, Irvine Unified voters rejected a $50 per-parcel tax.

The June 4 special election will cost the district about $57,000 to conduct.

On Tuesday, the board also approved a hiring and spending freeze that district officials implemented last week to save money. Under the freeze, non-essential positions, including clerical, janitorial and administrative jobs, will not be filled for the rest of the current budget year, Reed said.


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