Shoreline seeks parcel tax renewal in fall

08/05/2020

The Shoreline Unified School District will ask voters to renew its parcel tax in the November election, after the board of trustees last week approved placing a measure on the ballot to renew the tax at its current amount, $212 per parcel. 

The tax, which is set to expire after June 2021, provides the district with $1 million annually, or 7 percent of total revenue. Newly, the parcel tax will come with a senior exemption and a citizens' oversight committee. 

Four seats are also open on the district’s five-member board of trustees, and only one incumbent, board president Jill Manning-Sartori, had filed her papers as of Wednesday. The deadline is Friday.

The decisions facing Shoreline voters from Olema to Bodega Bay follow a slew of failures related to statewide and county school funding in the March election, which took place before Covid-19 upended the economy. Although the school district has dealt with its share of controversies since voters last approved a parcel tax eight years ago, historically residents have supported funding it.

“Our hope is that we can say, ‘Look, we appreciate this partnership we have with this community, let’s keep it going,’” said Bob Raines, the district’s superintendent. 

Shoreline was one of the first school districts in California to seek voter-approved parcel tax funding in 1984; since then, the tax has been approved without fail. It was last renewed in 2012 at $184.70 per year with a two percent annual increase. 

This time around, the measure seeks to simply extend the tax another eight years, without an annual increase. Two town halls about the parcel tax this summer were sparsely attended.

The district is taking a conservative approach and adding the senior exemption because of the uncertain economy and the importance of passing the measure in this election. Any primary homeowner over the age of 65 can file for the exemption.

The measure requires two-thirds approval. A survey at the beginning of the year found that enough residents supported the parcel tax for it to pass, but in March, the district got a bad sign when three school funding measures surprisingly failed. 

Statewide, Proposition 13 sought to authorize $15 billion in bonds for school facilities, but more than half of voters opposed it. In Marin, the Tamalpais Union High School District’s attempt to increase its $455 per-parcel tax by $190 fell short, as did the Novato Unified School District’s attempt to increase its $251 per-parcel by $125. The districts were forced to cut electives and lay off support staff to balance their budgets.

Shoreline is hoping for a better outcome, and its confidence is buoyed by a successful 2018 bond measure to fund construction on all five district campuses. The district easily passed Measure I to take out up to $19.5 million in bonds for facilities improvements, and in the spring the district celebrated $7 million in savings due to opportunistic bond sales. Construction is underway this summer, with fresh paint, new fire alarms, accessibility improvements on all campuses, a new roof for West Marin School and a revamped locker room for Tomales High. 

Shoreline is a basic-aid school district—which means its local property tax revenue exceeds the state’s revenue limit—so the district receives little state funding. Property taxes are a lagging economic indicator, so a large downturn due to the current recession isn’t expected for a few years, and while cuts to education at the state level impact small parts of the budget, Shoreline is projecting a balanced budget for at least the next two years.

Although the district has a stable fiscal situation, a number of mishaps have troubled it.

Shoreline has faced sustained complaints from teachers and support staff over compensation and benefits. Both the teachers’ and the classified staff unions have confronted district leadership over unpaid raises and stipends, incorrect paychecks, uncounted vacation days and failures to abide by collective bargaining agreements. 

The teachers’ union threatened a lawsuit last year because of the unpaid raises, and the classified staff union participated in a one-day wildcat strike in 2017 amid labor negotiations. Last year, the district reached labor agreements with both unions, and the relationship between them has improved. The district last month reached a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union to eventually return to campus with safety measures in place.

Another thorn in Shoreline’s side was former principal Matt Nagle. Mr. Nagle was the principal at West Marin School from 2012 until 2018, when he was reassigned as an elementary school teacher in Bodega Bay. The motive behind his demotion was disputed: The district claimed he was reassigned because of issues with his behavior and leadership, while Mr. Nagle claimed his reassignment was retaliation for running for Marin County Superintendent of Schools. He sued Mr. Raines and the district for retaliation and defamation, and started showing up at board meetings with harsh criticism. In March, the parties settled; Mr. Nagle dropped his allegations and resigned, and the district wrote him a check for $700,000.

Despite the controversies, the district has attempted to maintain a focus on educating its 500 students, who are majority Latino. Shoreline has a large achievement gap between its white and Latino students, similar to what is seen in schools across California. Last year, 68 percent of white students and 27 percent of Latino students met state standards in English and language arts, and in math, 46 percent of white students and 16 percent of Latino students met standards.

Recent efforts have centered around improving reading instruction. The district launched a new assessment system that better meets students at their learning level by emphasizing individual and small-group instruction, and hired two literacy coaches to support teachers in the effort.

To close the achievement gap, Tomales High offered its first-ever SAT day last year, when every student could take a version of the test for free. The high school has been successful at enrolling students in post-high school career readiness academic programs, and nearly all graduates are enrolling in a program after they graduate. Recently, efforts have focused on college completion, because while enrollment is high, graduation rates are average at about 50 percent. The school formed a completion team and reached out to former students to identify key barriers: independent living skills, finances and reading levels.

Shoreline initially aimed to bring students back to classrooms this month, but new orders from Governor Gavin Newsom to offer rigorous distance learning put those plans on hold. The district is now offering families a choice between two plans: a remote-learning plan, in which students learn over a computer until at least January, and a transition plan, in which students are brought back to campus when it is allowed.