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Budget Cuts Overshadow Alameda Schools Race

In the wake of recent cuts, candidates must cut another $13 million unless taxes are raised.

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If the six candidates for two open Alameda Board of Education seats need any skill for their trusteeship of the Alameda Unified School District it will be the ability to swim, because whoever takes the seats will be diving into a sea of red ink.

Faced with massive state funding reductions and voters' narrow rejection of a parcel tax that district leaders hoped would replace those lost funds, the school board made more than $7.2 million in cuts this year that included increasing class sizes and shuttering schools for an extra week. And they are working on plans that could close more than half the schools Alameda Unified operates by 2013.

District leaders are preparing a fresh parcel tax proposal that they hope will help them stave off additional cuts of up to $13 million over the next two years, as well as a package of cuts, including school closures, that they'll make if voters say no. The parcel tax decision will be made before board members are seated on December 14, although their support would undoubtedly be critical to getting a new tax passed. The decisions on school closures and consolidations will happen the night the new board members take office.

Those in line to make the decisions include incumbent Mike McMahon, retired Alameda Unified administrator Marjorie Sherratt, labor negotiator James Pruitt, parent and businessman Clay Pollard, businessman Rand Wrobel, and parent Sheri Palmer.

All of the candidates who responded to requests for comment said they'd support a new parcel tax. Both Sherratt and McMahon said they'd support a tax based on building square footage, with McMahon saying at a recent candidate forum he'd look at a tax of 20 cents to 25 cents per square foot. Pruitt said he'd support a tax that has more consensus than Measure E, a split-roll tax that failed in June and earned the wrath of commercial property owners who called the tax unfair because it charged them far more than homeowners would pay. Pollard said he would also support a fair, short-term tax that is specific with voters about what it will be spent on.

Palmer didn't respond to requests for comment; Wrobel also didn't respond, though he said on his web site that he would support a fair, equitable tax that doesn't charge commercial and residential properties different rates, as Alameda's Measure E school parcel tax does now.

Pruitt said he'd find it tough to support closures and consolidation of schools and increasing class sizes and that he'd work to bring a fresh perspective to the board. Pollard, meanwhile, said he would cut and consolidate where he could and that he would seek out business partnerships and ask parents to volunteer more in schools. Pollard, who was a vociferous opponent of the board's decision to teach an anti-gay bullying curriculum in elementary schools, said he wants the district to focus on the basics of reading, writing, and math.

McMahon, who said the biggest problem facing the district right now is a "sense of despair" over what's going to happen with Alameda's public schools, said he'd like to consider restructuring Alameda's secondary schools and having just one high school on the Island. Sherratt said she'd like to see the district expand its offerings and save money by ditching textbooks in favor of online courses, and she'd like to see Alameda Unified develop stronger partnerships with California State University, East Bay and community colleges.

Wrobel has said he thinks the district can save money if it converts all of its schools to charters.

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