Political brawl, Tahoe style | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Political brawl, Tahoe style

William Ferchland

When Lennie Schwartz walked into his final meeting as school board president in December, a $60-parcel-tax proposal to fund education waited for his vote.

The board room was crowded by the time he arrived. It was another meeting where a big decision had to be made.

“At the beginning of the night I certainly was ready to vote on it,” Schwartz said. “At the time I wanted to go ahead.”

The $60 tax proposal, approved by a new Lake Tahoe Unified School District board two days later to counter steep budget shortfalls, would appear on the April ballot and instigate a political brawl in South Lake Tahoe.

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If Schwartz and the members approved the proposal, it would have been on the March ballot and already decided. Instead, the outgoing board tabled the decision for the new board.

The result was more time for campaigning but the April date landed the election two days before tax day and in the middle of spring break.

The tax, or, in ballot-speak, Measure L, was considered in the fall as one way to plug the hole caused from consecutive years of declining enrollment and evaporating state funds.

Among other things, the $60 tax, if approved, will keep elementary schools open next year but at least one will likely close in 2005-06 because of student declines.

Two sites will close next school year if it’s not passed. The sites – Meyers Elementary is the one already known – will be decided Monday.

Many argue that even if the tax passes, schools will close. District officials counter that the decision will be more of a natural progress rather than a stopgap for financial reasons.

Each departure of a student leaves an empty desk and shrinks the district’s general fund. The state funds $4,685.18 for each student.

While the closure topic is the most contentious, it’s not the only causality if the measure fails. Class-size reduction, a state-funded program with contributions from the district, would be eliminated. The program caps the number of students in kindergarten through third-grade at 20.

The program’s elimination doubled the number of teachers that received a pink slip. A “reduction in force” has occurred since the 2001-02 school year because of enrollment declines. More than $5 million has been cut for four straight years in the district’s battle to fight the downward spiral of enrollment.

While the district has received heat on past decisions, the usual critics weren’t the ones who formed organized opposition groups against Measure L.

Two groups, the Lake Tahoe Taxpayers Against Measure L and the No on “L” Committee, represent the interests of time share owners, specifically the Marriott, Americana Vacation Resort and the Stardust Vacation Resort.

There are 53,981 parcels within the school district. More than half, 59 percent, are time-share units owned by outsiders who spend a week, month or other timespans in South Lake Tahoe.

Those within the industry have called the tax unfair and taxation without representation. Ed and Janice McCarthy, who are running the No on “L” Committee and manage the Americana and Stardust resorts, represent more than 8,000 time share owners.

McCarthy said she would be willing to work with the school district on another proposal if the measure fails. If Measure L passes, her attorneys are ready to immediately file a lawsuit against the district arguing that it is legally unfair.

The Lake Tahoe Taxpayers Against Measure L committee is a different animal. The organization is sponsored by the American Resort Development Association, a wealthy establishment that protects and promotes the interests of the resort industry.

The association pumped $75,000 into the committee’s coffers, which are overseen by Sacramento attorneys. The president of the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, Jon Coupal, and Michael Boccadora, a lobbyist for the Dolphin Group, have campaigned for the measure’s defeat.

The Dolphin Group is a California communications firm that claims it helped transform Ronald Reagan from an actor to a political force.

“Everything we do is designed to change the perceptions of an individual or group – to get them to think differently – and to ultimately persuade them to change their behavior,” its Web site states.

The two visited the South Lake Tahoe Senior Center last week. They highlighted that while those 65 and older can apply for exemption from the tax, they can only do it for one parcel.

Officials in the school district, which will have the responsibility to collect the tax if its approved, confirmed the single exemption for seniors.

Since Measure L is the lone ballot item Tuesday, county election officials will tabulate results after polls close at 8 p.m. On Thursday, Elections Supervisor Norma Gray said out of 3,978 absentee ballots issued, 2,414 have been returned.

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com.

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