Infrequently updated blog of thoughts and feelings whenever I have time to sit down and write. It seems as though I have less and less time to sit down and write these days. That's why this page is static most of the time.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Ballot Madness

The morning didn’t start out well today. A tragic suicide in front of a BART train in San Leandro during the morning commute disrupted what even under normal circumstances would have been a pretty frantic day. Both my sons ride BART almost daily from that station. Alex normally walks to BART to catch a train to SFSU, where he’s beginning his Sophomore year. He could, however, drive to the Coliseum station since the San Leandro station was likely to be closed for hours. Nathan (who normally rides a skateboard to BART), had no such option. He is in the final week of editing a music video he directed as part of the summer Youth Sounds Factory project in Oakland, and has only a few days left in the studio before it must be wrapped. His partner in the project also had to have some way to get to Telegraph Avenue. It seemed I was their only hope.

Coincidentally, I had also worked a 13 hour day on Thursday night preparing for a major office move taking place today. I felt I’d earned some comp time for that (and for last weekend’s marathon six hour server maintenance day), so I had scheduled time to drive around the Bay Area to get authorization signatures on two Ballot Arguments I had drafted for the Libertarian Party to oppose some major tax disasters coming our way in the Special Election called for November 8.

Because this is not a standard election, but one called by Gov. Schwarzenegger to accomplish things the legislature won’t touch, the turnout is expected to be low. As low voter turnout allows governments to more easily pass stealth tax increases, this is the best time for them to sneak these insidious plots onto the ballot and have them passed with only a modest and inexpensive get-out-the-vote campaign and almost non-existent opposition. The only ones voting on this will be the ones with a stake in it: the proponents of the tax hikes (school districts) and the folks who are lucky enough to know about it in advance, such as the parents who regularly attend school board meetings to keep up with their activities and those like me, who stopped by the Registrar’s office to check what measures had been filed).

I am active in my son’s high school United Parents organization (the PTA having been kicked off campus ten years ago). The parents at the time didn’t feel the national organization --- and the resources it requires of its affiliates --- would benefit the campus anywhere as much as local self-interested parents acting as an independent, autonomous body. So I do know the kind of financial pressures under which our schools operate. But I’ve also seen some tremendous wastes of my tax money over the years caused by ill-conceived projects and incompetent execution.

The folks we elect to school boards are little league politicians still in spring training. They’re just figuring out how the political games are played, and while merely getting elected demonstrates an aptitude for the backstabbing nature of the path they have chosen, they still haven’t had enough practice to be as ruthless as their big league mentors in the state legislature and congress. And like their party bosses, many of them assume the voters really are as stupid as polls tend to indicate. They passed Proposition 39 in 2002, which lowered the threshold required to approve a school bond measure in California from 2/3 to 55%.
It’s not as if bonds in this state have had any particular trouble getting passed over the years under the 2/3 rule. In drafting the ballot arguments, it was very helpful to remind the voters how many bonds they’ve already approved over the past seven years in both communities affected by these proposals, and how only $4 million of the projected $200 million debt has been paid off since 1998. And with only two exceptions, the projects targeted for completion in this bond proposal are identical to the projects that were described in the previous two bond measures that have not yet been completed. The projects had so far exceeded their projected budgets that they could not be completed with first $53 million, so they need another $44 million to finish. Just going over the past history of bond funding for these school districts pretty much wrote the argument all by itself.

It’s like the freshmen politicians on the school boards have been taken in by the credit card companies that prey on young college kids just moving out of their parents’ homes for the first time. You see these companies staffing tables in the stadiums at college football games, signing up one gullible 19 year old after another with the magic of plastic. The temptation of actually having the power to craft a measure that creates a no-limit credit card account for you and your buddies that you won’t have to pay off yourself must be intoxicating.. It is also good to remind the voters what the politicians already know: the burden of paying off this debt is not theirs or ours, but falls on our children.
This is child abuse of the worst kind because it can’t be talked away through therapy or compensated by a multi-million dollar payoff from the Catholic church. It is abuse that requires our sons and daughters to carry the lion’s share of financial responsibility to pay off the high interest credit cards we used to fund their “free” education. As painful as paying taxes is for those of us with modest means, it must be even more painful for those with the resources to afford tuition at private schools, since they have to pay even more to support the mediocre schools as well as the good ones.
Well, Nathan was not able to contact Aimee to coordinate travel plans, and since he didn’t have to be in Oakland until 11:00 a.m., I dashed out to Castro Valley to get more folks to sign on with our argument. Had I known then that the Registrar would accept faxed signatures, it could have saved considerable trouble. I would have had at least two more signatures on our arguments if I had this little bit of extra knowledge in advance of the deadline. But all worked out in the end, and by the time I returned to San Leandro to get Nathan and Aimee, the BART station had re-opened. Nathan still had not been able to get in touch with Aimee, and wasn’t quite ready to leave when I had to get back to Richmond for more move work. He said he would get to BART the way he normally does, on his skateboard. So I dashed off to Richmond to begin the day, with a detour to El Cerrito to get Curt Cornell’s signature on our papers.
The movers had not quite finished unloading by the time I arrived, which was fortunate for me, since my security badge hadn’t yet been activated in the new building, so I could not open any doors the way I can in the other buildings on the campus. But I was able to get to the new office because the security guards already know me and the movers had propped open some otherwise secure doors to deliver their loads. I was able to get all but five computers set up, and Noah Hanna agreed to finish the last ones so I could leave by 3:00 p.m.
I made a mad dash to San Leandro, where Peter Kavaler and Steven Rosenberg agreed to meet me halfway to put their signatures on the argment, and then had to cancel my other appointment at the Westover Winery because I really didn’t think I could get out there and then get back to downtown Oakland by the 5:00 deadline for filing my paperwork. As it turned out, I just made it with only about 20 minutes to spare.
A competing argument had been filed against the Albany parcel tax and the author had contacted me this morning to ask that we use his argument as our rebuttal instead of the one we’d spent several days drafting and editing via email. I’d discussed this with Curt Cornell, our Chair who was the lead signature on both arguments and rebuttals, and he agreed that it was more important to build a coalition with other local tax opponents than submit our rebuttal by itself, which, while clarifying some factual errors made by the proponents, did not take a particularly sympathetic stand regarding the teachers who were behind the measure. I know teachers and know how their union has been able to strong-arm lots of measures like this one onto the ballot, but like it or not, the public feels great warmth toward them when it comes time to vote on tax increases. This is why so many tax hikes like this one pass, because they are sold to the voters as a way to help “the children” while it is actually the teachers who benefit.
Pointing out mistakes in an essay written by teachers is kind of harsh, but someone has to say it. Still, an argument that was sympathetic or neutral toward the teachers has a much better chance of persuading voters to oppose the proposal than ours would have. Add to that some text that agrees with the union in principle concerning “No Child Left Behind” and standardized testing and you gain the trust of voters who might otherwise support the tax. Leon Rimov attends these school board meetings, and has followed the progress of this proposal since its earliest inception. He wrote the other opposing argument and asked me if we could substitute his argument as our rebuttal. While I still like our own argument, I thought it was far more important to have Mr. Rimov’s side published as well. So this is the rebuttal that will appear in the voter information packet:

Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure A

Be careful what you vote for – you may get it and have to live with it.
Listen to the words of Albany School Board Member Miriam Walden on June 23, 2005:
“Parcel taxes are very regressive—they disproportionately impact low income families at a time when these families already use a very large part of their income for housing.”
And remember this: the Albany Unified School District has a reserve of approximately $900,000.
The Governor and Legislature have stolen monies from 1998’s Proposition 98 education agreement -- $500,000 stolen from this District’s budget next year!

Hey, up there! Give it back!

Albany, get focused. Get it right! Parcel taxes in 1987…1993…1999. Another parcel tax in 2005?
A basic cause for today’s problems can be found in that clever legislative and unfunded scheme…Leave No Child Behind. This mandate has resulted in military, religious and fraudulent science teachings beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

“Teaching to the test” has become today’s mantra. It’s a flawed standard of education. Its consequence is the dumbing down of our youth.
Funding for “teaching to the test” is no way to educate a productive and responsible citizenry. It fails in the development of positive analytic skills.
Measure A is no answer to the problem. Naïve taxpayers are being pick-pocketed again. This November 8 Special Election Parcel Tax pleading deserves much more thought and transparency.

Vote NO on Measure A.

Leon Rimov, Architecht
Albany resident , Native Californian
Here is the rebuttal we finally finished, but did not submit, due to Mr. Rimov's more "politically correct" argument:

Original Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure A

Proponents of Measure A have fabricated statistics to support their
argument. According to the Census Bureau, California teachers enjoy
the highest average salary in the country ($56K) as of 2003 (the
latest data available) directly contradicting their claims. Note that
the proponents of this tax are themselves schoolteachers and
administrators, who have their own financial interests at stake. They
want to raise YOUR taxes so that they can increase THEIR
paychecks. According to the same Census Bureau report, California
does not rank near the bottom of all 50 states in school funding, but
only 35th. Granted, that isn't anything to boast about, but it isn't as dire as the proponents claim.

Did you notice the advocates want to increase your taxes in order
to "maintain small class sizes." This is the problem. They want
forever more money to just break even. Previous tax hikes have not
increased education quality, nor will this one. If anything, our
schools are worse now than when the last parcel tax passed. The
measure mandates the tax to increase every year at the rate of
inflation. If this remains at 3%, your $250 parcel tax will increase
to more than $300/year by 2012, when this tax is supposed to sunset.
The proponents appear to want housing in Albany to be even less
affordable than it is now!

With all other taxes rising (not to mention the cost of gasoline),
can you afford this tax? Please think of the children and vote NO on
Measure A.
Curt Cornell, Chair, Libertarian Party of Alameda County
Ralph Hoffman, P.E. (TX), Senior Citizen Representative
San Ramon Valley Unified School District Citizen Oversight Committee

The rebuttal to our argument against Measure B is rather weak, and criticizes our group for having no children in the Castro Valley Schools, but that point is in error, as we now have more Castro Valley residents signing on to our rebuttal.

Rebuttal to Argument Against Measure B

Do not be fooled! We are residents of Castro Valley. Most of those urging you to vote no do not live in Castro Valley. Neither their children nor their property values will be affected by a vote on Measure B. However, every “No” vote will have a negative impact on students and property values in Castro Valley.

The facts are clear: In 1998 and 2002, voters approved local school bonds to begin the renovation of older schools in the Castro Valley Unified School District. The district has been able to repair roofing, build new classrooms, and renovate older school buildings. The 2002 bond allowed the schools to continue renovation, add science classrooms at each elementary school, and build a Performing Arts Center at Castro Valley High School.

But there is more that must be done.

Most of the schools in Castro Valley were built in the 1950s. There have been major changes in education since 1950. Measure B funds will make information-age library access available to students and give students the classrooms and facilities needed to meet today’s educational standards.

Since 1998, all bond funds have been spent only on previously authorized local school projects. None have been spent on administrative salaries. Many of us have served on the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee and we have seen our local bond funds spent well. If there was a problem or lack of diligence by the district, we would have reported it to the community.
Please vote YES on Measure B.

Various Castro Valley Teachers, School Administrators and Business owners

Our rebuttal to the argument in favor of Measure B was written by Peter Kavaler, another one of those parents who regularly attends school board meetings. Peter is also a network engineer who has already done tons of volunteer work on the “library information technology” project for his children’s Castro Valley schools that has been in the bond project list since 1998. According to Peter, it has so far been one of the biggest and most wasteful of all these projects. The proponents are correct that of course there is “more that must be done,” because nothing significant has yet been accomplished since the District promised these upgrades back during the dot com boom. They didn’t even take advantage of obtaining cheap network equipment at pennies on the dollar after all those dot com businesses folded and had to sell off their inventory four years ago. That was when they should have kicked the project into high gear and finished it without spending even half of the funds they had budgeted for it. But of course, we couldn’t get those details into this argument due to the 250 word limit.

Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure B

Of the $53,000,000 worth of bonds passed so far, only $4 million has been paid off. The total cost, including interest, of all three bonds will be about $200 million, a tremendous sum for our relatively small school district. We will be paying for these bonds with substantial property tax increases for 30 years. They won't be paid off entirely until decades after today's kindergarten class graduates from college!

All campuses have undergone extensive remodeling in the last 5 years. Why do we now need to do it all over again to comply with "seismic standards?" The bond summary omits the fact that the single largest expenditure is for a new athletic complex at the high school. Many other projects, such as library improvements and replacement of heating systems, were explicitly detailed in the first bond's project list in 1998. Why are these items now re-appearing in this bond?

The grandiose plans for a new athletic complex for the High School are estimated to cost over $14 million. Yet the Castro Valley Sports Foundation estimates that a new field, track, and bleachers should cost no more than $3 million. So where is the other $11 million going to be spent?

We must think carefully before approving this third bond. We all want our children to have the best education possible, but let's not burden them with a debt they can ill afford. Please join us, your fellow school supporters, and vote NO on Measure B.

Curt Cornell, Chair, Libertarian Party of California
Michael S. Dubin, Castro Valley Taxpayer
Peter Kavaler, Castro Valley Parent
Steven Rosenberg, Ph.D., Microbiologist, Castro Valley
Ralph A. Hoffmann, P.E.(TX), Senior Citizen Representative, San Ramon Valley Unified School District Citizens' Oversight Committee
Voters won't see any of these arguments until they receive their sample ballots sometime in late September or perhaps early October. Now the campaign really begins.