Thoughts on the failure of a community

One week ago, on June 2nd, Redwood City's Measure E, a parcel tax of $91 per year for 5 years failed to reach the super majority required to pass. Voter turnout was extremely low: only 23.5% of Redwood City voters actually voted. Of those, 37% voted NO to funds desperately needed by our school district to just maintain existing programs in the face of impending cuts from the state. The 62% which would have been a landslide victory in a normal election was a bitter defeat under the gargantuan 2/3 requirements imposed by Prop 13. These are the facts.

I let a few days go by before trying to put down my thoughts on this matter. This time around, our family participated actively in the campaign, with several phone banking sessions, canvassing the neighborhood distributing door hangers and even calling voters on the day of the election. I know for a fact that the campaign was run very well and that it executed efficiently on the chosen strategy. But painfully, it was not enough, and this is the second time for many of us who still remember the failure of Measure V.

My first thought that night was too painful to put down: this is not my community. A community where 1 of every 3 people I see on the street votes NO to support of the public schools is a community that does not share my values. I know this is a bit unfair... after all, 1/3 of 23.5% is only 8% of our community, right? And I know so many people who like me are devoted to public education and work tirelessly to fund our schools, right?

Right, but the blow of Measure E's failure hit me in the gut, not in my rational mind. I can't avoid the feeling that Redwood City has failed me again and might not be the place for me. So many people voted NO and so many more people could not be bothered to vote at all. Shame on us!

And then again, the rational side reminds me that the 2/3 requirement imposed by Prop 13 is unfair, unreachable and after all, the real culprit here. Right?

Sure, but why is it that all our surrounding school districts have managed to pass their parcel taxes? Palo Alto, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Woodside, East Palo Alto. What do they have that we don't? We will need to answer this question to understand this failure and try again, which I'm sure won't happen for many years, to the detriment of our kids' education.

Looking forward

We first need to understand why the Measure failed and why these other districts are able to pass theirs. I see a few  possibilities: either the campaign strategy was faulty, the campaign was not properly executed or there's a fundamental Redwood City problem that will prevent parcel taxes from becoming a reality in the near future. Given my involvement with the campaign, I don't accept the second of these as a possibility. So either the strategy was faulty or something's wrong with our fair city. This time around, the School District hired a consultant with a perfect record getting parcel taxes passed... that is, until they met their match in Redwood City. We thus know that the strategy works elsewhere, it just does not work here. Redwood City's demographic makeup must be to blame then.

I'm no expert on demographics and their impact on parcel taxes, but some notable aspects of Redwood City, compared to places like Menlo Part, San Carlos and Palo Alto are:

  • the percentage of people without school age kids is large and also there's a large group that sends their kids to private school, possibly due to bad reputation of our schools in the past. Consequently there's a smaller percentage of voters with kids in our public schools, who would be directly benefited by a parcel tax.

  • Redwood City is a heterogeneous community, with an affluent area west of El Camino Real and a more working class area to the East. This might create and "us vs. them" mentality not conducive to supporting parcel taxes for the benefit of everyone, as despicable as this argument sounds.

If we accept that there's an intrinsic characteristic of Redwood City that prevents us from passing a Parcel Tax, we need to do something radical to change the situation. The Redwood City School District has their hands tied now and will be feverishly deciding on the coming cuts, trying to make their impact as small as possible for the kids. I don't envy them at all.

The Redwood City Education Foundation will step up its efforts to raise more money for the schools. If you supported the parcel tax, you can send a $91 contribution to the RCEF right now from their website. If you supported the parcel tax and could not be bothered to vote, you should contribute more than $91, as much as you can. To a large extent, this is your fault.

Regarding the insane 2/3 requirement for passing local parcel taxes, Senator Joe Simitian has a bill to reduce this percentage to 55%, much like it was done a few years ago for School Bonds. Unfortunately the bill has been stuck in committee for years and since it requires a 2/3 super majority to pass, passage remains unlikely unless republicans (yes, with lowercase "r") vote for it.

My intuition is that we've exhausted normal options here. If we're going to pass a parcel tax in the future we need to build a movement around public education in our city. My recollection of the last time Palo Alto had their parcel tax vote was that the election was everywhere, in the paper, lawn signs, public discussion. A week ago, in Redwood City, it was hard to know an election was going on. To be successful we'll need all sides of the community to push for this and clearly articulate the arguments that will convince the super majority we need.

I don't know how to build such a movement, but in the meantime I propose these action items:

  • Clearly document all cuts the district makes as a result of the parcel tax failure.

  • Publicize these cuts in the most disruptive manner possible. Make sure the whole community knows the consequences of their actions.

Other people are choosing to leave the public school system for private school. Others are considering moving to other cities. Of course, that leaves behind the less advantaged people that don't have any options and will stay in our schools, no matter what happens.

Today I attended the instrumental music concert for 5th to 8th grades, at Sequoia High School. It was inspirational to see so many kids playing music. Many of these kids would not be playing an instrument at all if not offered by their public school. This is exactly the sort of program that we're putting in jeopardy. And you're telling me you can't afford $91 a year for such an incredible gift? Shame on us.


  1. Great post. It certainly is disheartening. What IS wrong with Redwood City?

    I love your idea about keeping track of all the cuts to show the consequences. Here's a good start:

  2. I think there were significant challenges that were not met. If it is true that only 40% of registered parents voted, then that's a big hit. I was not involved in this parcel tax, but I have been involved in two Portola Valley parcel taxes.

    Can someone tell me if there was poll watching, including keeping track of whose absentee ballots had been received. If not, then this was the organizers' and the consultants' fault. Poll watching means that there is someone at each poll location keeping track of who has voted and calling all those who said they would vote yes and even offering to pick them up.
    Secondly, I never saw an adequate answer to what I assume was a widely read email from Maria. I advocated answering her line by line, but...

  3. Jack: yes on both counts. There was poll watching and volunteers spent the day calling "yes" people who had not voted yet. We did not offer to pick them up though.

    There were also a couple of responses to Maria's email, maybe not line by line, but clearly responses to her message.


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