Superintendent Winfred Roberson and school board president Richard Harris expressed regrets and apologies on Monday regarding a letter that was sent out last week about the senior citizen exemption for Measure A.
The Davis school district’s proposed emergency parcel tax is the subject of an all-mail election that began April 4 and will conclude May 3.
The situation involving the letter began when the school district office fielded a significant number of requests during the past few weeks for information about the senior exemption for Measure A.
As a result of those inquiries, district staff decided to send a letter that mailed on Wednesday to some 985 local property owners — all of whom already have requested and received a senior citizen exemption from the school district’s two other previously approved parcel taxes (Measure Q and W).
But in the process of sending that letter, a proverbial can of worms was opened.
The letter describes what Measure A would do, if approved by two-thirds of voters — charging $200 per single family home (or parcel), or $20 per mobile home or multi-unit dwelling during both the 2011 and 2012 tax years. The letter notes that “the state has been cutting funding for schools for several years” and warns that “a number of district programs will have to be curtailed or eliminated” if local funding is not added to offset state reductions. Specifically, the letter mentions possible cuts to class size reduction programs, the number of sections for certain core subject classes, as well as foreign language, music and career technical education classes, in addition to cuts in counseling and site safety programs.
The letter also outlines that to qualify for the senior citizen exemption, the property owner must be 65 or older, and the property must be that senior citizen’s primary residence.
On the back of the letter was a senior exemption form for Measure A.
But the timing of the letter, which was mailed just two days after the Yolo County Elections Office mailed out envelopes containing ballots on April 4, and the wording of the letter (particularly the phrases “The week of April 4th you will receive a ballot in the mail and be asked to approve Measure A” and “The district is seeking voter approval for a parcel tax”), and the fact that the letter was on district letterhead and carried the superintendent’s signature, struck at least some recipients as qualifying as an advocacy statement on the part of the school district.
While a school district is legally permitted to issue a fact sheet regarding a proposed parcel tax (and the Davis school district has done so in past parcel tax campaigns), a district is supposed to remain neutral in terms of recommending how voters cast their ballots. Advocacy is supposed to be left to an independent campaign committee — and in the case of Measure A, that would be the Yes for Our Students committee (www.yesforourstudents.org).
Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning, writing in Sunday’s paper, excoriated the school district for the wording and the timing of the letter, leading to a spirited exchange of online comments posted on The Davis Enterprise website and local blogs over the ensuing hours.
On Monday morning, Roberson offered an apology. “The district recently sent a letter to senior citizens which confirmed and/or explained exemption status with regard to parcel taxes,” Roberson said in a written statement. “I’m sorry that the senior exemption letter was mailed in close proximity to Davis voters receiving the Measure A ballot. This timing gives the appearance that my office has campaigned to senior citizen voters. For this I am regretful.”
“Though approval of Measure A will provide immediate benefits to Davis students, I acknowledge my role as a public official to only provide facts to the Davis voters,” Roberson continued. “I apologize if the language is perceived to advocate rather than provide information about the intent and process.”
School board president Richard Harris told The Enterprise in a phone interview that “clearly there were some failures in the system.”
“The letter should have been sent early in March, to talk to people, and give them a heads up,” Harris said. “Our seniors, especially our fixed income seniors, they have questions about how the exemptions work. It’s our job to let them know. Where we made a mistake was we sent out the letter too late, too close to the ballot. I apologize for that.”
Harris added that he is “confident that the letter meets the standards of the law. It’s clearly not a campaign piece. It’s clearly information for people that wanted it, information that is very helpful to them.”
Just to be sure, Harris said he’s asking district staff to “have our attorney contact the Fair Political Practices Commission” and ask the FPPC to review the letter’s text and timing.
“Nobody’s trying to pull a fast one. The district’s just trying to get information to seniors,” Harris said, adding that “I think Dunning blew it out of proportion.”
“The bottom line,” Harris concluded, “is that Measure A is about education programs for our kids.”
Freddie Oakley, Yolo County clerk-recorder and head of the Yolo County Elections Office, confirmed to The Enterprise on Monday that the FPPC (rather than her office) was the appropriate agency to make a determination on whether or not the school district’s letter was appropriate.
Oakley then took a moment to put the matter in some perspective. “Considering the cohort of voters that this letter went to, it’s perhaps not an inappropriate thought to make these matters easier to handle for our older property owners,” Oakley began.
She added that “It is a distinct advantage to live in a community where an issue of this type, like the funding of schools, is taken seriously, and is seriously debated. I think it is also an advantage to live in a community where issues of probity and public behavior are likewise seriously taken and seriously debated. So to the extent that this particular event brings people to the public forum, I think it’s a good thing.
“As an election administrator, I would hope that in any election, people addressing the issues would stick close to the question on the ballot, and not pay so much attention to campaign activities, or one-minute sound bites on TV, or ‘hit pieces’ that arrive in the mail, or personalities, when it should be about issues,” Oakley added. “To the extent that this is a distraction from the central issue, I guess that is a little bit regrettable.
“And to the extent that it confirms that we live in a community where people get passionate about important things … I personally am grateful for that,” Oakley concluded.
She also mentioned that local voters still have plenty of time to mail in their ballots, or turn them in right up to 8 p.m. May 3, either at the Yolo County Elections Office inside the Yolo County Administration Building, 625 Court St., Room B-05, in Woodland, or at the designated drop box in the lobby at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. Davis.
“Those who vote at the last minute are not without an option,” Oakley stressed. But ballots must be in the hands of Yolo County Elections Department staff by 8 p.m. May 3 if they are to be counted.
She added that local voters with questions can always call the Yolo County Elections Office at (530) 666-8133.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.