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Horgan: A familiar public education scenario is playing out again

Timing is everything. So it’s back to the drawing board for officials of the San Mateo-Foster City School District. Their 11th-hour attempt to persuade voters to extend an existing parcel tax failed during a recent special election.

The situation is somewhat similar to what happened several years ago when a construction bond measure was shot down by the voters on a first attempt. The bond package was eventually given the OK on a later ballot just over a year ago.

District authorities now must hope that the same scenario can work with the parcel tax. Raising money for the district simply does not come easily. And, each time it goes back to the electorate, it costs the district and its taxpayers cash that could be used for other purposes.

What makes this situation even more pressing is that the current $209 parcel tax expires June 30, leaving the district’s 2017-18 budget in flux.

The existing (but not for long) parcel tax generates about $7 million annually. That’s roughly equivalent to the salaries and benefits of 70 full-time, experienced teachers.

Historically, the very nature of the district itself, split as it is between San Mateo and Foster City, can cause problems. The needs and desires of voters in San Mateo don’t always mesh with those of Foster City denizens. And old (and current) grudges die hard, or not at all.

The latest electoral failure, on an all-mail ballot, was not an overwhelming rejection. But it was another painful loss nonetheless and an unanticipated one at that. Such school tax extensions (this one wasn’t even an increase as many are these days) typically are often routine in San Mateo County.

Measure Y needed a two-thirds majority for passage, or 67 percent; it received about 65 percent. The actual count was 13,039 in favor, 6,951 opposed, according to the County Elections Office last week. To overcome those nay votes, Measure Y adherents needed 13,902 votes. So the real-time deficit was actually 863.

Now the question becomes: Having left no margin for error in terms of timing, how soon will the district, with 12,000 students in 20 schools, head back to the public for what will now amount to a decidedly urgent request to re-institute that expiring fiscal package?

Chelsea Bonini, president of the district’s board of trustees, said it’s uncertain at this point. An administrative spokeswoman for the district, Amber Farinha, said, “We need more time; we need to take a look at the whole process.”

Was Measure Y on the ballot too soon after the district’s last bond measure election and the contentious period leading up to it late in 2015? Ms. Farinha said that wasn’t clear at this point. Ms. Bonini agreed.

Regardless, the clock was ticking on an extension and the district had little choice but to push ahead and go to the voters at some point, and fairly quickly. A late 2016 date had been ruled out as being too soon.

And what about that disappearing $7 million? Ms. Farinha explained that, prior to the election, the district’s trustees trimmed $2.4 million from their upcoming budget and created a special reserve just in case Measure Y was defeated.

That leaves $4.6 million in budget economies (or the use of those reserves or a combination of both) left to consider. A board gathering is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday at district headquarters in Foster City. The election result and its implications may be discussed at that time. The 2017-18 budget year commences July 1.

The next regular meeting of the trustees is set for April 20.

John Horgan’s column appears weekly. You can contact him by email at johnhorganmedia@gmail.com.or by regular mail at P.O. Box 117083, Burlingame, CA 94011.