Looking the Gift Horse in the Mouth

Surveys and polling are an important and expensive part of most parcel tax campaigns. One of the claims I’ve often heard in our school district is how great it is that the For the Children of West County PAC pays for surveys instead of the school district. This is not so great. The problem is that a private group owns the survey results, not the public. So, the public is dependent on the For the Children group for access to the data in the polling and can’t insist on access as a right. (One question the public might be interested in is: What exactly was the projected support for an 11-cent parcel tax with the objectives stated in the ballot language?)

It’s Not a Parcel Tax; It’s a MeasureG

One of my more amusing experiences from the failed measure G parcel tax campaign was being sort of blackballed by the consultant hired by For the Children of West County for the measure G campaign, Kevin Reikes. Mr. Reikes decided that using the words “parcel tax”, to describe the measure G parcel tax would doom its passage. So, if you look at any of the brochures produced by his firm for the parcel tax campaign, you won’t see the words “parcel tax” anywhere. It’s actually quite rhetorically beautiful. My problem was that, as the Webmaster for the parcel tax Web site, I found it very difficult to banish the words entirely from all Web content. I tried, but I couldn’t completely. For a BS glossy brochure, it’s much easier. I offered to give up running the Web site to someone else like Reike’s firm, but I was still left to carry on. The dysfunctional solution for Reikes was to simply exclude any references to the campaign Web site in the campaign brochures. Well, I guess, even though measure G failed, our consultant is in the clear.

The Dog Ate My Parcel Tax!

One of the many things I’ve put off commenting on is the failure of the West Contra Costa USD parcel tax “renewal,” Measure G, on August 28th. This was a mail-in ballot whose campaigning season was mostly over the summer when school was not in session. The current parcel tax has two more years to go, but it was decided (note the vague passive tense) to go for it now.

Why did it fail? Who knows. When people talk about this, I am reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. I’m one of those blind men.

The driving force behind the parcel tax was the For the Children of West County “faction” fueled by Charles Ramsey’s ability to bring in a lot of money from construction interests. I worked on the parcel tax campaign as a PTA VP (the Bayside Council of PTAs endorsed the parcel tax) and as the Webmaster for the campaign Web site. So, I was in position to make a lot of observations despite being somewhat removed from the center of things.

How It Was Supposed to Pass

The basic theory behind this parcel tax campaign was that the “no” vote was sleeping and that by targeting the “yes” vote and just getting them to vote without disturbing the sleeping “no” vote everything would be fine. In other words, the “no” vote is soft and the “yes” vote is hard. As a blind man, my take on the elephant is that the “yes” vote is soft and the “no” vote is hard.

Results

Here are the results by city for the failed Measure G and the previously successful Measure B parcel tax measure (2004):

Measure B (2004) Measure G (2007)
Yes No Yes No Yes Change No Change
ALL 32859 13696 14520 12172 -56% -11%
Unincorporated 6537 2804 3005 2372 -54% -15%
El Cerrito 6158 1995 3310 1856 -46% -7%
Hercules 2362 1748 895 1534 -62% -12%
Pinole 3376 1997 1351 1738 -60% -13%
Richmond 12280 4323 5147 3990 -58% -8%
San Pablo 2150 830 790 682 -63% -18%

Pretty consistently the “yes” vote falls off by 50-60% from one election to the next, while the “no” vote just holds steady, without increasing, losing only about 10% across the board.

The Lack of a Well-Publicized General Crisis

So, what kept the soft “yes” vote home. The overarching reason to this blind man was the lack of a sense of a general crisis in funding for education. In 2004, the State education funding crisis was constantly in all of the news outlets. This included extreme measures like mid-year budget cuts. In contrast, in recent years, funding for education from the State has steadily increased. All the doom-and-gloom reporting about education funding has been significantly reduced in the media. Yes, there has been a continuing controversy about what is the “correct” amount to fund education, but this is a more abstract discussion.

The Role of the Teachers Union

In addition to this, there was the uncertainty produced by the teachers’ union (UTR) and its bizarre maneuvering over the parcel tax. The UTR was involved in salary reopener negotiations with the district during the whole parcel tax campaign. The UTR was not happy with the For the Children of West County people (who hold a 3-2 majority on the Board). The UTR could have simply done nothing about the parcel tax and made there point more subtly. But, no. Instead the UTR leadership had to be clever and introduce some weird resolution that the UTR would formally NOT support the parcel tax, but it wasn’t against the parcel tax. Whatever realpolitik point the UTR was aiming at in doing this was buried within a mound of confusion. Most “no” voters could care less what the UTR does, but for “yes” voters — if you’re scratching your head, you’re not voting.

When Is a Renewal Not a Renewal

Finally, the parcel tax itself was confusing. It was presented as a “renewal” with some kind of “inflation” adjustment. But, this inflation adjustment was a whopping 50% increase. And, the parcel tax actually included an increased scope of funding purposes. More head scratching and less voting by those who would be sympathetic to supporting education.

What Next for the For the Children of West County

The reaction of the For the Children people has been a big shrug. The dog ate the parcel tax. The dog assumes various guises like the subprime mortgage crisis or the dastardly state and federal authorities (not local authorities) or simply the fact that people “just don’t get it.” Along with explaining how the dog ate the parcel tax, the focus for the For the Children is making the cuts to show people how they will suffer from not passing the parcel tax. Any work on another parcel tax campaign will have to be shouldered by others.

What Next for the UTR

This brings us to the UTR. Now that the UTR leadership has not helped not not pass the parcel tax, they stand ready to campaign for their own parcel tax. This will be different because it will be a community-based campaign and the parcel tax will be based on appealing to uplifting values and not just supporting existing programs. We’ll see, I guess.

Timeline for Portola Relocation Affair

Our district has been tied up in knots about what to do about Portola Middle School, which was to be renovated and now has to be moved. A parent, Mark Woo, is organizing a group of parents to make sure that, now that things have been restarted, a fair and objective process is used. As part of the preparation for the first meeting of this group, he sent around a timeline to recap what’s happened so far:

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Many of the documents discussed in this timeline are posted at: http://briefcase.yahoo.com/fangwoo@pacbell.net

Videos of the School Board are at Youtube, just search “fangwood” and you will find them. Unfortunately there is a ten minute limit on videos, so Board discussions and staff presentations are broken into multiple videos

May 2006
The District sought to rebuild Portola Middle School. One of the requirements for such a project is approval from the State Architect. The State Architect sent a letter informing the District that “… it is opinion of DSA that there is significant risk of earthquake induced landslide. The potential for landslide is such that the health and safety of the pupils is at risk and must be corrected.” The letter and a map of slide zones from the City of El Cerrito are posted online. I have requested (but not yet received) the 2002 seismic analysis of the Portola buildings so that we can better understand what would happen in an earthquake even if there is not a landslide.

October 2006
The District holds for the first set of two public meetings to solicit ideas for replacing Portola are held at Harding Elementary. Staff explains that making the buildings seismically safe is too difficult/expensive and that the lower section of Portola and Cerrito Vista Park are not viable locations because of the slide zones (the State wants a 50’ setback from the end of the slide zone).

November 2006
The District holds the second set of two public meetings. The District presents various options for replacing Portola. District staff informs participants that the Board’s Facilities Subcommittee has instructed them not to study K-8 as an option and that they are focusing only on District-owned property.

January 10, 2007
Because of complaints from the Castro Elementary neighborhood about the District’s poor notification process, an extra public meeting is held to discuss the options.

January 17, 2007
At its regular meeting, the Board discusses the pending options. Pfeiffer, Ramsey and Kronenberg agree to remove Castro from consideration and agree to have Oxbridge (a private real estate firm) explore the availability of non-District owned land in El Cerrito.

April 4, 2007
At the Board meeting, district staff presented two proposals, the Fairmont Elementary School site and a combined middle/high school at El Cerrito HS. The meeting discloses that Oxbridge found no other viable locations (copies of the report have been requested, but not received as of yet – apparently Oxbridge verbally presented its findings to the Board in a closed non-public session). The Board votes 3-1 (Pfeiffer, Ramsey and Kronenberg aye, Brown nay, Miles not present) to select Fairmont as the “lead” proposal. No explanation of why they are selecting this option is provided. Of note, the staff presentation for the Fairmont site shows the new middle school’s footprint to include seven residential parcels, a public street and the El Cerrito Senior Center and library. No budget figures for the project are provided. Also, the staff presentation does not discuss what would happen to the Fairmont Elementary students. The Fairmont proposal in previous public meetings had been to move the elementary school students to the Alvarado Adult School site. When asked by someone in the audience about the students, Ramsey responded that they would be redistricted to other schools in the area.

June 6, 2007
The Fairmont community does a presentation for the Board on the proposed middle school relocation and closure of Fairmont, noting the impact on the seven residential parcels that are needed for the expanded middle school site, the inadequate size of the site and the impact of the loss of the elementary school. Pfeiffer, Ramsey and Kronenberg express concern about the decision they made in April.

June 20, 2007
The Board officially rescinds (5-0 vote) their decision to make Fairmont the “lead” option. The Board agrees to a new process for determining Portola’s replacement. It includes the willingness to be open minded and explore all viable options (including K-8), setting of criteria for making a selection and providing public notice by posting flyers at schools and in the West County Times.

July 25, 2007
The first meeting to discuss selection criteria is scheduled for 5:30pm at DeJean Middle School in Richmond.