CUSD: Parcel tax may be only hope

The Chico Unified School District is considering spreading the budget pain out—way out.

A Dec. 17 discussion about revenue-generating activities, including long-term fund-raising, ended in the Board of Trustees forming a committee that will investigate the possibility of a parcel tax.

“Rather than cutting, we need to inspire the community to help us increase revenue to keep our schools great,” said Trustee Scott Huber, referring to large-scale fund-raising, a new tax or both.

While a tax could be on a special ballot as early as July 2004, the effort would have to rise from the community, not the school district, which is barred from such activities. “If the community doesn’t take the lead, it won’t work. It just won’t happen,” said Trustee Rick Anderson.

If trustees were worried that citizens don’t understand how bad the enrollment decline and state budget truly are, that fear may have been overcome with the doom-and-gloom Superintendent Scott Brown had shared earlier in the meeting: Next year’s $1.8 million deficit and the $2.1 million shortfall projected for 2005-06 are just the beginning.

“We’re going to face some tough choices,” Brown said. Those could include laying off workers, rewriting graduation requirements and saving salary money by dropping to a five-period day at junior high. Eliminating athletics would save $450,000 a year, Brown said. Also, he said, “you may need to look at merging some campuses, and not just the smaller, outlying schools.”

George Young, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association, said he’d do anything he could to help a parcel tax effort if it comes to that. “This is a good way to solve this problem,” he said. “Nobody likes taxes, but nobody likes poor schools either.”

Trustee Rick Rees pointed out that it took volunteers three tries to muster the required two-thirds vote for the high school bond, and they were successful only after a paid consultant recommended limiting publicity and encouraging only the “yes” voters to the polls.

“We need to get very specific,” opined Huber, who is a real-estate agent. “I want people to be very clear that the connection is: no parcel tax, possible school closures; no parcel tax, possible school sports gone; no parcel tax, possible music programs gone. … People need to get that in their heads and get mad.”

The board decided to form two subcommittees, one to investigate the possibility of a parcel tax and another to ponder fund-raising opportunities.

Trustee Rick Anderson said he could not in good conscience support a short-term fund-raising effort at the same time a parcel tax is being considered, because each would dilute the other. He volunteered for the parcel tax committee with Rees, while Huber and Anthony Watts will be on the fund-raising one, with President Steve O’Bryan supervising both.

The meeting, which lasted more than four hours, also included a presentation by Watts on the how the district could harness solar power.