Many in Oak Park Favor School Levy

Times Staff Writer

A poll commissioned by Oak Park Unified School District found that more than half of the property owners surveyed would be willing to tax themselves to maintain the quality of their schools.

Oak Park Supt. Gary G. Richards said more than a third of those polled were aware the 3,765-student district had a great need for money and that two of three respondents considered the quality of local schools an important factor when they chose to live in Oak Park.

More than half of the 300 households polled last month said they would support a parcel tax to benefit local education. The level of support ranged from 52% favorable, when asked if they would be willing to add as much as $197 to their annual tax bill, to 63%, when the annual levy suggested was $95.

After pollsters explained that senior citizens probably would be exempt, that the tax would end after five years and described the specific types of programs the money would support, the level of support jumped to 60% and 72%, respectively. The polling company said the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7%.

"We were pleased by the number of people who were supportive of the schools and thought the schools were doing a wonderful job," Richards said. "Our concern is whether the level of support will generate sufficient revenue to allow us to avoid some cuts."

Any levy, if approved, would be applied equally to all property owners, no matter the size or value of the parcel.

Even with such positive survey results, a parcel tax is never easy to enact because it requires two-thirds voter approval, Richards said. There is no doubt, however, that the need is real.

The district, which has a $23.2-million budget, used reserves this school year to cover a $300,000 shortfall, and Richards said the district would need to cut $500,000 in each of the next two school years "just to stay at the status quo."

That would require a parcel tax of at least $105, according to district estimates, to produce $504,000. A $200 levy would generate about $960,000 a year based on a district estimate that 4,800 parcels would participate.

"We're just trying to determine how we can continue to commit to offering an outstanding educational program in this economic climate," Richards said.

Martin Klauss, assistant superintendent of business and administrative services, said reduced per-pupil state funding, lower-than-anticipated student growth and increased special education costs forced Oak Park to tap its reserves.

"You can only go to that well so often," he said, "and next year those reserves will not be sufficient to solve the entire problem."

Richards said the school board planned to take up the issue at its Nov. 18 meeting but must first decide a specific tax amount and whether the measure would go on the March presidential primary ballot or be the subject of a special election that would be held in April. The latter would give backers more time to educate voters.

Also on Nov. 18, the Conejo Unified School District board is expected to take up the issue of whether to ask voters to pass a parcel tax. To qualify for the March ballot, each district would need to notify county voting officials by Dec. 4.

Conejo Supt. Robert Fraisse said a telephone survey in his 22,000-student district began last week and that he planned to notify his board in two weeks whether a parcel tax -- which could raise about $1.65 million annually -- would be necessary. A lot depends on how much the new governor will look to education to help balance next year's state budget.

"The best scenario would be that the community supports it, but we won't need it for next year," he said.

Fraisse said extra money from a parcel tax would allow the district to maintain smaller class sizes, supplemental reading programs and counseling programs at schools.

"We wish the Oak Park district the best of luck," Fraisse said. "It's reassuring to hear their community is aware of and willing to look at ways to confront this budget crisis."

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