District parcel tax renewal, Measure M, on November ballot


(Henry Hoelter)

By Samantha Nichols

Measure M, a proposed nine-year renewal of the current parcel tax rate for the Tamalpais Unified High School District, is on the Marin County ballot this November. If passed, the measure would extend the current $469 tax per parcel that accounts for 17 percent of the district’s annual budget, or $16.8 million in yearly funds. A two-thirds voter approval is required for the measure to pass, and an exemption is available for senior citizens and low-income taxpayers with disabilities.

“This is not an increase, it’s a straight renewal for nine years of the same tax amount that the community is currently paying,” district Chief Financial Officer Corbett Elsen said.

According to the district’s official statement regarding Measure M, the measure would allow the district to “maintain excellent hands-on science, technology, engineering, math, reading and writing instruction; attract [and] retain highly qualified teachers; and support music [and] art.”

If the measure fails

If Measure M is not approved, the district will be fiscally insolvent by the start of the 2022-23 school year, when both active parcels from 2011 and 2018 expire. Fiscal insolvency is a situation similar to bankruptcy in which total liabilities exceed total assets. According to Elsen, the district will have to enact nearly $17 million worth of cuts next school year in order to prepare for the loss of parcel tax funding.

“I think the board and superintendent are planning on doing their due diligence and beginning preparing sooner, like we did the past couple of years,” Elsen said.

In the event of a Measure M failure, a fiscal advisory committee composed of teachers, parents, students, and community members will be immediately organized, and will be responsible for vetting and recommending budget cuts to Superintendent Tara Taupier. 

“[Taupier] will make a recommendation to the board of trustees this winter or February, when we start the budget development process for next school year,” Elsen said. The board will then ultimately decide whether to adopt the proposed cuts into next year’s budget. “And that would involve a lot of input sessions with the community, like we’ve done in the past,” Elsen added.

Impact on programming

If Measure M fails, the district would be forced to make “total dollar cuts equivalent to about 100 teachers,” according to Elsen. In addition to teacher layoffs, the budget cuts would primarily impact elective offerings and programs. “Measure M will stabilize our science elective programs, our music classes, our art classes, our drama classes, the variety of electives we have,” Elsen said, adding that Tam, Redwood, and High School 1327 may be forced to scale down to a six period day schedule instead of the current seven. 

“What makes Tam so special is the opportunity for all students to take unique classes outside of the standard curriculum,” ASB President Sol Tolson said. “Tam students thrive in the academic opportunity here, but that is at risk with Measure M.”

Advanced Placement (AP) courses and athletics may be at risk as well if the measure fails. According to the official website for the Measure M campaign, the potential cuts would have a “dramatic impact on electives, class offerings such as Advanced Placement, science and fine arts classes as well as athletic programs.” The campaign is co-chaired by Dana Linker Steele and Jennifer Ginsburg, and is not funded by the district per state policies that prohibit public taxpayer dollars from being used for any advocacy campaigns.

An opposing view

Michael Hartnett, a dissenter of Measure M and treasurer of the Marin Public Policy Institute, made an argument against the measure. 

The tax is regressive: the owner of a one-bedroom condo pays the same as the hedge fund manager in Kent Woodlands or a shopping mall,” Hartnett wrote. “Despite what supporters may tell you, a tax based on square footage would be fairer and perfectly legal.”

According to the Measure M campaign website, “Other school districts that have recently passed parcel taxes based on square footage of property have been challenged in court as to the legality of such a measure.” These legal challenges have restricted access to funding and cost districts thousands in legal fees, according to the campaign. “TUHSD [the district] cannot risk seeking a square-footage based parcel tax until the law is more settled,” the website reads.

Some voters have expressed concern that a portion of funds from the parcel tax will be used to implement the name change of Sir Francis Drake High School, temporarily renamed High School 1327. The district has emphasized that no district funds, including parcel tax revenue, will be used for the name change. According to the Measure M website, “The costs of any approved name change will be borne by the school site through fundraising, grant awards, donations and any other methods to raise funds.”

Future budget cuts

The failure of Measure B in March, which would have increased taxes for the district by $190 per parcel in order to avoid cuts due to rising enrollment and pension costs, placed the district in dire financial circumstances. The resulting $3 million in budget cuts impacted student journalism programs and suspended the Team program, a one-year outdoor learning program at Tamiscal for district juniors. According to the official Measure M text, the district “has already made $6.7 million in annual cuts, increased class size, cut administrative staff and reduced benefits, with more cuts expected in the future.” 

“Given that Measure M is a straight renewal, therefore, no increase, there will likely have to be some consideration of budget cuts regardless, even if it does pass. But those cuts will be much less significant compared to the large volume of cuts we would have to consider if Measure M failed,” Elsen said. 

Polling conducted by the Tam district in June found that 70 percent of those surveyed were in support of the measure. “So the good news is the school board through their polling has identified that there is very strong support for the Tam High School District,” Steele said. 

“The amazing programming that the Tam district has been known for for decades is truly at stake. And it’s absolutely critical that the Tam district passes Measure M to continue to provide those amazing programs and services to our current and future generations of students,” Elsen said.