Both Sides Get Ready for Fight Over Prop. 170

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How do local school districts spell relief? P-r-o-p-o-s-i-t-i-o-n 170.

The statewide initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot would make it easier for school districts to raise property taxes to build and modernize schools by allowing voters to approve local construction bonds by a simple majority vote.

Such measures now require a two-thirds vote for passage, a margin that only 46% of the school bond measures statewide since 1983 have managed to achieve. But a simple majority of the voters endorsed more than 90% of those measures, including two attempts in 1991 by the Newhall School District.

"You bet, we strongly support it," said Supt. J. Michael McGrath of the Newhall district, referring to the proposition. "There isn't a more critical need than schools in this area."

If the proposition passes, McGrath said the district would ask voters to approve another bond measure.

"We will definitely pursue a bond issue if it passes," agreed Les Adelson, superintendent of the South Pasadena Unified School District. "Our youngest building is 23 years old and we've got to do something about our structural problems."

But if school districts are pinning their hopes on Proposition 170, another local group is equally determined to see it defeated.

The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. signed the ballot argument against the measure and plans to join the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. in a $500,000 campaign to defeat it. Both groups also backed Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped the government's taxing authority.

The two-thirds majority vote requirement, however, is a century-old provision of the state Constitution that predates the modern tax-cutting measure.

"It's not a question of whether schools need the money--they do," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks group, which represents 1,300 families. "But the premise of Proposition 13 is that property-tax increases need and should have two-thirds approval, period, no exceptions."

Only three other states--Idaho, Mississippi and Oklahoma--require a two-thirds majority vote for passage of school construction bonds, said Dennis Meyers, legislative advocate for the Assn. of California School Administrators.

Taxpayers who own property deserve the special protection afforded them by the two-thirds requirement because they bear the burden of repaying bond issues with higher taxes, said Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. Opponents of the two-thirds rule say the tax hikes also are paid by renters because property owners pass the increases on to them.

"We'll be inundated with these measures if Proposition 170 passes," Fox said.

But Newhall is the only school district in northern Los Angeles County that would put a measure on the ballot immediately, school officials said. Other districts, including those in Castaic, Saugus and Canyon Country, have passed bond measures recently, although some had to be presented to voters more than once.

In Canyon Country, a $20-million bond issue that raises property taxes by about $28 annually for most residents squeaked by with only 16 votes to spare in 1991. A similar measure the year before got 65% of the votes but fell 145 votes short.

"If Proposition 170 passes, what it would mean is the minority would no longer rule over the majority," said Robert Nolet, superintendent of the Sulphur Springs School District in Canyon Country.

But even if school districts do not immediately put bond measures before voters, they are likely to do so in the future because they cannot depend on the state for money to build and modernize schools, said Walter Swanson, superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District in Santa Clarita.

About 210,000 new students annually enroll in California's schools, and the state has a $6-billion backlog of construction requests from local districts, according to the state Department of Education.

Proposition 170 would not change the two-thirds rule for parcel taxes, another common method of raising money for schools.

The difference between bonds and parcel taxes, a flat fee per parcel of real estate, is that money raised by the latter can be used for operating costs such as school supplies and programs. The South Pasadena district, for example, in 1991 came just 1% short of a two-thirds majority needed for passage of a $600,000 parcel tax that would have been used to buy books and supplies.

A bill that would allow voters to also approve parcel taxes by a simple majority is now making the final rounds of the Legislature and is expected to be signed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Proposition 170 is endorsed by the educational establishment, including the California State PTA and the California School Boards Assn., and by several business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce. The California Building Industry Assn. also supports it because members believe that it would take pressure off developers to pay for new schools, a spokeswoman said.

But crucial as educators say Proposition 170 is to schools, it is being overshadowed by another, more controversial measure on the November ballot--the school-voucher proposal that would provide parents with state-funded grants to help pay tuition for private and parochial schools.

Worried about confusing voters and having enough money for both campaigns, educators tried to delay Proposition 170 until June. But state legislation that would have postponed the ballot measure languished in the state Senate, and Proposition 170 ended up on the November ballot, said Laura Walker, a spokeswoman for the school boards group.

"Now, we've got no choice about fighting for it the best we can," Walker said. "We've got districts that failed with 65% of the vote and they're desperate."

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