Alameda Schools Face Grim Future 

The once-proud school district makes deep cuts and prepares to close campuses after the defeat of the Measure E parcel tax.

Just days after suffering a razor-thin defeat at the polls, Alameda schools Superintendent Kirsten Vital said she was struggling to reconcile the loss of Measure E with the commanding majority it received at the ballot box. The parcel tax measure garnered 65.6 percent of the vote, but it fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. It was blocked by a small minority of the electorate — just over 34 percent of Alameda voters.

The heartbreaking loss also has already resulted in draconian cuts to the once-envied school district. Measure E would have doubled the $7 million that the district receives annually from existing parcel taxes. But because it lost, this school year will be one week shorter, and teachers will lose most of the paid time they had to prepare for students' return on August 30. And that's on top of class sizes that were already slated to swell next year — regardless of whether the tax won or lost at the polls.

This fall, middle and high school students also will have fewer counselors to guide them on their course and college decisions, while Advanced Placement courses for high school students will dwindle as part of the $7.2 million in cuts the school board approved to balance its budget for next year. The district also will have less money for textbooks, teacher training, special education services, and adult education courses.

And Vital and her staff have begun the grim task of planning for the closure, potentially, of as many as six of the district's schools in order to manage millions of dollars more in cuts in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, when Alameda Unified's existing parcel taxes expire. "This is not where we want to be as a district. The state of California has put us in this place," Vital told the board late last month. "We do not want to make these cuts."

The school board decided in March to put the Measure E parcel tax on the ballot in an effort to blunt the effect of state budget cuts that were more than $7 million this past year. Measure E would have replaced the district's existing taxes, Measures A and H, with a single tax that would have cost homeowners twice as much as they currently pay.

But now district leadership is anticipating that the school board will need to slash an additional $11.4 million in the 2012-2013 school year, when A and H lapse. And that's not counting any new cuts Sacramento throws their way when a state budget is finally passed sometime this year.

Measure E received 14,415 of the 22,029 votes cast in the mail-only election — almost 3,000 more than said yes to the Measure H tax in 2008. But the two-thirds-vote threshold meant Measure E fell about 250 votes short of passing. Just 7,613 Alamedans voted against it — a fact that even surprised opponents. Ed Hirshberg, of the Committee Against Measure E, said after the votes were initially tallied that he thought opponents would surely score more "no" votes.

The close result also marked the end of a campaign that was nasty even by Alameda's low standards. Some proponents of the measure had threatened to boycott store owners who opposed it — even getting into verbal confrontations with workers in one shop. Opponents, meanwhile, released a video that some felt had implied that supporters of the measure were racist.

But all the charges and countercharges — along with arguments that the tax was unfair to business and commercial property owners who would be paying up to fourteen times more per parcel than homeowners — seemed to have little impact on voters. Instead, critics of the measure wrote local newspapers and on blogs that they were tired of being asked to reach into their pockets once again to support the schools. Others said they simply couldn't afford to pay another $350 a year. "E's call for more than $350 in new taxes was far over the top. Alameda isn't Piedmont," one supporter wrote in a piece published July 2 in the Alameda Journal.

Others, meanwhile, said they were unconvinced the extra money would do anything to improve Alameda schools. They said they thought the district could make additional cuts without harming students. "Alameda schools have been producing very average level students for many years now. Even back when they had a full budget. Adding more money will not solve the problem of declining public education quality in CA," one commenter wrote on a local news site.

Campaign organizers and district leaders apparently disagree, however: They are already making plans to put another parcel tax on the ballot. Sarah Olaes, volunteer coordinator for APLUS, the committee that campaigned for Measure E, told the school board on June 29 that she and other parents were ready to work toward getting a new tax passed.

Later that night, school board Vice President Mike McMahon asked his fellow trustees to direct Vital and her staff to look into putting a new tax on the ballot in March 2011, specifically to avoid school closures. "The fact of the matter is: It's very clear this community wants to continue to support these schools. I'll go down on that sword, because this is what I want to continue to fight for," McMahon said before gaining the unanimous approval of his dais-mates to move forward on a new tax. "The integrity of this community is based on our ability to walk our kids to school — not ship them to factories."

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