Friday, July 25, 2014

Superintendent, school board president apologize for Measure A letter to seniors

April 11, 2011 |


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 (

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 or (530) 747-8055.


Discussion | 19 comments

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  • The World's Gone CrazyApril 11, 2011 - 5:20 pm

    The DJUSD administrations look a lot like the Keystone Cops for the second time in the last few months. It looks like it’s time for a change at the top. A question for the Enterprise “news” staff that missed this news story completely, did you verify the letters only went to the people who in the past had requested exemptions or did you take the districts word for it?

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  • BalanceApril 11, 2011 - 6:22 pm

    A balanced presentation of the issue:

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  • AlApril 12, 2011 - 6:48 am

    Has the school board done any research to determine if these exemptions are being used by low income seniors, or if they are being used by seniors with the resources to hire tax lawyers and accountants?

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  • Balance66April 12, 2011 - 10:15 am

    Since the law doesn't allow for distinguishing exemptions based on income, why would the district use limited staff time to look into it? They have worked hard in the last few years to make sure that seniors know there is an exemption available. Only around 1000 seniors have taken advantage, that says there are lots of seniors that not only are able but do pay the parcel taxes!

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  • AlApril 12, 2011 - 12:41 pm

    All of the district's marketing materials for Measure A, including in the ballot pamphlet/voter guide, refer to the senior exemption as being provided for seniors with limited means, yet nowhere does the district provide evidence that it is indeed being used by those seniors with limited means. Davis is chock full of very well-off seniors. I want to know if it is mostly the seniors who can afford tax professionals who are exempting themselves, or if the exemptions are truly going to benefit seniors with limited means. I have yet to hear an honest rationale for why seniors are able to exempt themselves, except for the cynical one that they would vote down the tax if it affected them. If the district cared one bit about how this tax would affect people of limited means, it would have allowed Social Security/Disability recipients to exempt themselves as well, as allowed in the Government Code, but chose not to.

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  • wdf1April 12, 2011 - 1:20 pm

    Comment discussion on the Vanguard blog suggests that there are a lot of seniors who live in the Rancho Yolo trailer park that were very interested.

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  • AlApril 21, 2011 - 6:45 am

    Only 56 of the addresses this letter went out to are in Rancho Yolo. Over twice as many letters (117) went to addresses in El Macero (59), College Park (5), Wildhorse (18), Lake Alhambra (1), Stonegate (27), and the Davis Muni Golf Course neighborhood (7).

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  • StopthemadnessApril 12, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    First, the School Board's 30 second public comment firing debacle of Jeff C., then the inability to run the district within budgetary constraints (even with two current parcel taxes other districts don't have), and now this. We are paying the district staff way too much for this type of performance! No on A!

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  • wdf1April 12, 2011 - 2:15 pm

    That's like cutting your nose off to spite your face. This district has less administrative staff per student than most other districts in the state. If you disagree strongly enough with the school board, then I suggest voting in other school board members. I was surprised that more voters didn’t support Mike Nolan as a challenger. But the fact remains that this is about supporting student success in the local schools. If you doubt that, look at what is going on in school districts all over the state -- class sizes of 35-40, no music, no counselors. How will kids make it through school? Is Measure A worth that or not? I say yes.

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  • David KruegerApril 12, 2011 - 8:32 pm

    Wow. So when an "official" of the school district gets caught doing something unethical and doesn't even have the "smarts" to apologize in any meaningful way (saying I'm sorry for how you feel instead of saying I'm sorry for beating you) is clearly an indication of the need to get all the money from all the people all the time... at any cost. As they say in Wisconsin "shame on you, shame, shame, shame." Now that we all know who you really are, let's all vote appropriately. No on A, No Way, No How.

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  • Ralph FinchApril 12, 2011 - 5:55 pm

    Finally, some numbers. Numbers are good. 985 property owners have already filed for the exemption. Assuming they would have paid the full tax ($120/$200/$200), that is a potential (if Measure A passes and the same owners file again) roughly $500,000--half a million dollars--that they get to VOTE on, but don't have to PAY. How convenient for them. That loss to Davis schools must then be made up by the rest of us in yet another Measure. This system sucks. Yes, I know it's "for the children". Yes, I know the school board just can't do anything about this stupid system. But the citizenry can. So here's a question for the Yes on A proponents. Have you contacted your state Assemblyperson or Senator about changing this? So that it's not a flat tax, but a percentage of the existing assessed rate? Have you contacted them asking that this election system be changed to, say, allow only property owners to vote? Or at least not let someone vote who can then opt-out? And while you're asking us to save the schools...did you contact your state representatives to protest the nearly 2 years of 36 unpaid days/year suffered by many of your fellow citizens, your state-worker neighbors? No? Why not? And if you didn't show any regard for their concern, why should we show regard for your concern?

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  • wdf1April 12, 2011 - 6:17 pm

    "Have you contacted your state Assemblyperson or Senator about changing this? So that it’s not a flat tax, but a percentage of the existing assessed rate?" I don't think an Assemblyperson or Senator can do anything about it. It's in the California constitution, courtesy of Prop. 13. It would require a ballot petition to overturn it. "Have you contacted them asking that this election system be changed to, say, allow only property owners to vote?" This has been discussed elsewhere on the website. I think this is constitutionally questionable. There are renters in Davis who, indirectly, pay exactly the same as resident homeowners. Renters should be able to have a say. Yes the system sucks. Not enough state legislators had the balls to propose extending taxes to avoid this level of cuts. At least we have the ability to consider local remedies for our schools.

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  • Ralph FinchApril 12, 2011 - 6:22 pm

    I'll take that as a NO: No, you haven't bothered to even email your state reps to change this highly regressive tax and unjust election system. No, you haven't bothered to protest the unilateral pay whack given to your neighbors, state workers. No, you just don't care...unless it's something that pertains to you.

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  • Ralph FinchApril 12, 2011 - 6:26 pm

    And, BTW, there is a mail-in vote going on right now in the Natomas area of Sacto for a parcel tax increase to pay for flood control. ONLY property owners get to vote. And the tax is proportional to the assessed value, NOT a flat tax. So it's certainly legal in some cases. If enough people cared, they could get the Legislature to do something. But hey, why care about someone else? What, me worry?

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  • wdf1April 12, 2011 - 7:33 pm

    I would be interested in seeing information on Natomas' election. I went to the Sacramento Co. election site and didn't find anything. Please share relevant link(s).

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  • wdf1April 12, 2011 - 5:56 pm

    Note David Thompson's recent comment: It seems relevant to the story but hasn't been reported yet by the Enterprise nor acknowledged by Mr. Dunning.

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  • The World's Gone CrazyApril 12, 2011 - 8:06 pm

    This discussion is about whether the letter sent out by the district is ethical and/or legal, not whether Prop A should pass. I’m not sure exactly how the law applies, but I would think a couple of people would resign for stinking up the election.

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  • RichApril 12, 2011 - 9:32 pm

    Why does everyone assume only the 65+ are on a fixed income and in need of a break? I suspect the 65+ crowd share responsibility for the economic hole we're in as it relates to govt. budgets around the country.

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  • Jake AndersonApril 17, 2011 - 4:04 pm

    Is anyone that surprised that the school district leadership is failing. Superintendent Roberson went from being a high school assistant principal to superintendent in roughly one year (that one year being as a high school principal). He is probably the most underqualified superintendent for a district of its size in California.

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