Tax measure filed to support reduction of local class sizes

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Voters will get a chance during the November election to approve the Berkeley Schools Education Excellence Act of 2016, a tax measure that calls for $28 million in tax revenue to help reduce student-to-teacher ratios at Berkeley public schools.

The measure, as currently drafted, proposes a 37-cent tax on each square foot of residential, commercial, industrial and institutional space, which would replace the current 29-cent rate for residential spaces and 42-cent rate for commercial, industrial and institutional spaces. The tax can change annually as calculated by the Bay Area Consumer Price Index — a measurement of the average change in prices over time of goods and services purchased by households.

Though similar to the 2006 measure that it aims to renew, the 2016 measure will support equal student-to-teacher ratios from kindergarten to fifth grade.

If passed, about one-third of the revenue will also support libraries, art initiatives, music instruction, site-based programs and student support services.

A California appellate court ruled in 2012 that commercial and residential properties must be taxed equally.

If all properties were to be taxed at the residential rate, the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program — which funds libraries, teacher salaries and visual and performing arts — would lose nearly $3 million in funding, according to Natasha Beery, director of the BSEP and community engagement.

“One of the main things to know about the parcel tax is (that) the intention of the tax is to make up for the lack of state funding for education,” Beery said.

California ranks 44th nationwide in spending on K-12 education, according to a report from the California School Board Association. In 1978, voters approved Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes and cut school budgets.

“In the ’80s, we were 10 years into (Proposition 13), and parents were sitting on the playgrounds looking into their schools, looking at it fall apart,” said Christine Staples, president of the PTA Council.

Berkeley voters passed the first in a series of acts to fund programs in schools and teachers in 1986. These measures were subsequently renewed in 1994, 2004 and 2006.

According to Beery, the current funding from the parcel tax accounts for 20 percent of the school district budget and one-third of teachers’ salaries.

BSEP began planning two years ago and hosted community meetings to discuss reducing the student-to-teacher ratio to about 27:1 across elementary and secondary schools, which could be potentially lowered to 23:1 across K-5 with state funding, according to Beery.

“We have evidence from pretty well-done studies that class size makes for a good outcome,” said Jesse Rothstein, professor of public policy and economics. Rothstein added that when budgets are tight, spending is cut in non-required areas such as the arts.

The school board will finalize the second draft of the measure at its May 18 meeting and will hold the second hearing for approval on the same date.

Pamela Larson covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @pamreporting.