Naming a clear winner in Tuesday's debate between opponents and proponents of the proposed Measure C parcel tax ballot initiative may come down to whose numbers you believe.
San Ramon Unified School District Board member Greg Marvel squared off with former teacher Mike Arata, one of the measure's most vocal opponents, at the Crow Canyon Country Club in a debate sponsored by the San Ramon Valley Republican Women Federated.
Town Councilwoman Candace Andersen moderated the affair, which allowed each person a 15-minute presentation outlining their position on Measure C and then a five-minute rebuttal period. Once those were completed, audience members could ask questions on the issue.
Right from the start, statistics were key to each side's point. Marvel began the debate and spoke at length regarding the district's strides in the past several years, attaining a degree of academic prominence as well gaining control of its spending.
When he came onto the board, Marvel said, there were areas he saw that needed to be improved.
"The 1998 bond measure which generated $70 million from the taxpayers," Marvel noted. "I think was being spent unwisely, foolishly and amateurishly."
Marvel went on to say that over the years since then the school board's efforts have improved the district to the point where the SRVUSD is ranked No. 1 in districts of its size in the state, while California itself is the least well funded in the U.S.
"I used to be able to say 'Thank God for Mississippi,'" Marvel said, "but I can't say that anymore. We're 51st in the state for funding students." He then added, "Frankly what we're doing in this state is starving education."
Marvel said with the state cutting more from the education budget to make up for a projected $8 billion shortfall, the school district will need the estimated $7 million raised by Measure C just to stay afloat.
He said that of the district's 2,400 teachers, 228 of them had received layoff notices, and there are still more cuts to come.
When Arata's turn came up he, too, turned to figures. Using the school district's budget figures from the past 15 years he told the audience that the district has continuously outspent both its enrollment and inflation in what he called "an unsustainable spending trajectory", to the point where there is a $57 million dollar gap between where the district would be at parity with those figures and where it is today.
"They talk about a $10 million deficit; they'd have to lose another $47 million to have parity with spending and enrollment growth," Arata claimed.
Arata then took aim at wasteful expenditures the district could have avoided, such as spending $40,000 on a consultant hired to prepare the district for putting the measure on the ballot, or spending $300,000 to hold a special election rather than holding the election either during the November presidential election or the statewide special election on May 19.
He accused the district of manipulating numbers to create artificial shortfalls to justify asking for increases. In one example he said the district estimated an enrollment increase of 212 when the actual increase was more than 800.
Rather than ask for more taxpayer funds, Arata claimed that the district could use several unencumbered funds to make up for any shortfalls. One such fund, "Unencumbered Board Reserves," contains just under $5.6 million.
Marvel and Arata clashed over many of the latter's conclusions, Marvel calling them misleading or flat out "wrong."
"Mike makes it appear like California is rolling in dough. I wish that were the case," Marvel said.
He explained that Arata's "spending trajectory" was misleading as it didn't take into account things like hiring a number of teachers in order to maintain class sizes or the number of new schools opening in the district and the costs of running them.
When Arata warned attendees that the board would use the Measure C funds to pay for teacher salary increases, Marvel said he would never allow that to happen and if it did he would resign from the board.
"Get ready to resign then," quipped Arata, "because those funds are fungible."
He said what will happen is that the board will take money for the raises from the general fund and then "backfill" with money from Measure C, effectively doing an end-run around promises of not using the tax dollars for salaries.
During the question and answer session, Marvel was asked if schools would be closed if the parcel tax does not pass.
"I think we'll have to close some schools. Not in Dougherty Valley. Probably some schools in Alamo and some in Danville. We won't really know until 2010," he responded.
Another question had to do with what safeguards are in place to make certain the funds are used the way the district claims. Marvel said that a proposed oversight committee will be formed to make sure the funds are spent appropriately and within guidelines.
Arata scorned the notion. "In fact, the oversight committee will merely ensure that money goes into column A, at the same time money will be taken from column B to give teacher raises," he said. "The citizens oversight committee generally becomes a 'crony committee.'"
Afterward both men spoke with attendees about Measure C and answered more questions. Both said they felt they had proved their case.
Marvel felt he swayed some of the anti-tax voters in the room.
"I think I convinced some people," he said, adding, "What I'm hoping that people take away from this is that the parcel tax is a local initiative and 100 percent of the money that's raised, if they choose to tax themselves, will go to keeping our libraries open, saving counselors and music programs."
Arata's perception was different.
"I think the reception in this group was good," he said. "It's a group with either direct Republican affiliations or Republican instincts. Those instincts lend themselves well to true fiscal responsibility, which is not what the district practices."