Poll indicates parcel tax support for La Cañada schools

Local voters may have widely differing viewpoints on taxation and the machinations behind state and local budgets, but there is one thing they all seem to agree on: The quality of education at La Cañada Unified schools is a priority and should be maintained, even if it costs them.

That was the main conclusion of a parcel tax feasibility survey conducted in May, the results of which were presented Tuesday night to the school board.

Charles Heath, principal with the San Francisco-based TBWB Strategies, and Tim McLarney, owner of Encinitas survey research firm True North Research, delivered the main findings of the two-week telephone survey, which polled 207 district voters on a number of issues and taxation levels.

"The highlights tonight paint a very clear picture of how the community feels about your schools and their willingness to support a parcel tax," Heath said.

Surveyors sought to discover whether residents would support a new parcel tax when the current one, passed in 2009 at $150 per parcel, expires next spring. That tax brings in nearly $900,000 annually to help maintain programs and compensate for state funding shortages.

The survey also tried to gauge the perception of the district's need for additional money to maintain a list of priorities, from continuing to provide advanced academic programming to attracting the most qualified teachers.

"Everything on this list, in terms of how you could possibly spend the money, voters favor," McLarney told the school board.

Unlike the 2009 survey, which mainly asked respondents how much they'd be willing to pay, the new questionnaire polled the option of continuing at the current rate versus incremental increases of an additional $150, $225, $295 and $386 annually. Most questions pertained to the $386 level, McLarney explained, since high watermarks are the best gauge of the community's tax threshold. That amount would bring an additional $2.3 million into the district annually.

The survey also solicited opinions on how arguments for and against an increased tax might sway support in an election campaign. Among the most convincing arguments for an increase were maintaining the quality of local education in schools, which 95% of respondents identified as important, and maintaining local property values, a priority for 83% of the voters polled.

By comparison, only half of those surveyed said preventing local tax increases was "extremely important" or "very important."

"There was a 45% gap between the issue of preventing a local tax increase and the issue of maintaining the quality of local schools," McLarney said. "That's a gap we like to see, in terms of a feasibility study."

According to the final ballot test, 64% of respondents said they'd likely pay an additional $386, or an annual total of $536, with 33% opposed and the remainder unsure or unwilling to say. Among the lower funding levels, 70% said they'd support a continuance of the current $150 rate, with 67% supporting an additional $150 for a total of $300 annually. Any parcel tax measure put on a spring 2014 mail-in ballot requires two-thirds approval to pass.

The consultants suggested citizens create a "get-out-the-vote" campaign at least as aggressive as that mobilized in 2009, since none of the survey results indicated unquestionable parcel tax support beyond the 6.7% margin of error.

Board Member Andrew Blumenfeld, who sits on the district's parcel tax subcommittee with fellow member Susan Boyd, said the board's priority now is to select a tax amount that matches the district's actual needs.

"It just seems what we're asking for needs to be reflective of a genuine need, so we're not just asking for (an additional) $386 because we think we can get $386," he said.

The board must decide on a final parcel tax figure by Dec. 6 to file campaign papers.

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