For the past few months, West Contra Costa school district meetings have been shorter than normal and devoid of controversial subjects. There is none of the usual public squabbling between district and union officials over pay and benefits, even though the teachers' contract expired in June. The public naysayers who typically flock to board meetings either have disappeared or remain mum.
It's at least in part because the players are temporarily putting aside differences to focus on persuading voters to approve the Measure D parcel tax in November, says former school board member Glen Price.
"If it doesn't pass, it's going to be tough times for the West Contra Costa school district," said Price, who is co-chairman of the campaign For the Children of West County, which is advocating for passage. "One thing that people need to recognize, this is something that isn't just a nice thing for the district to have, this funding is essential."
The measure would drum up about $10 million per year for five years. It is a renewal of a current tax that expires in June and must earn a "yes" from two-thirds of West County voters.
At stake is funding for the district's athletics program, as well as librarians, counselors and extra teachers to help with class-size reduction, among other things. The district, which cut several million from its operating budget in the spring and must plan for deeper cuts next year, will have to reduce by about $10 million on top of that if Measure D fails.
The broad support for the measure is a departure from August 2007, when the teachers union declined to support a similar parcel tax effort in part because of a contract dispute with the district. That measure failed after receiving 54 percent approval, short of the needed two-thirds. The teachers union is on board this time and has been actively campaigning for passage.
"The parcel tax is pretty important to us. We want all our teachers and the community to band together," said United Teachers of Richmond President Pixie Hayward Schickele. "There are too many kids who are counting on this."
Price said his group has raised just more than $200,000 and hopes to raise about $75,000 more. For The Children has held weekly meetings and numerous phone-banking sessions, and plans to begin volunteer precinct walking this weekend to help get the word out.
"This is a huge election, there's been a tremendous surge in registered voters, and there's a lot of voters we need to reach out to," Price said. "We've got a real daunting threshold in front of us."
Critics said they opposed the 2007 measure because taxpayers already pay too much to the district and say school leaders need to control their $1 billion bond construction program and the swelling cost of retiree health benefits. Others said they didn't trust current school board members to properly manage the money.
"You can't keep crying wolf to the voters," West County resident Paul Freese told the board during a meeting on why the tax measure failed last year.
Price stressed that the current proposed parcel tax would pay for operating costs, not capital improvement projects as the bond measures do.
"When people do understand that difference, their support becomes even stronger, and it's a no-brainer for them," Price said.
Regardless, the district could have an uphill battle. Voters in the cities of Alameda and San Ramon narrowly rejected parcel taxes in June. The ailing economy and fears about the rising costs of just about everything could factor into decisions at the voting booths.
But a district-commissioned poll earlier this year showed that a strong parcel tax push with a local message could resonate with enough voters to pass it, as long as the district does not seek more money than what taxpayers fork over now, which was the case in 2007.
Price said he is optimistic.
"I think we have a chance," he said.
Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A parcel tax renewal for the West Contra Costa Unified School District