When Davis voters passed a parcel tax extension last fall, Davis Joint Unified School District leaders hailed the victory as a lifeline that kept their schools whole.
Now a California Supreme Court decision in an Alameda case has energized parcel tax opponents who say the Davis measure should be voided, and with it millions of dollars in school funding.
"This is a $12 million to $16 million decision," said Jose Granda, referring to the total revenue Davis schools are expected to receive during Measure E's four-year run through July 2017. "(Davis Joint Unified) should look at other ways of getting money for schools."
Granda, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, has filed a lawsuit in Yolo Superior Court challenging the Davis parcel tax. He made his opposition to the parcel tax a central part of his unsuccessful bid last year for Davis Joint Unified School Board.
Measure E extended a parcel tax for four years at $20 per unit for multifamily housing - typically apartment buildings - and $204 per parcel for other properties. The measure exempted seniors as well as property owners who live outside Davis but within school district boundaries.
Davis Joint Unified leaders in 2012 painted a bleak picture of life without Measure E: layoffs, closed schools, larger classes and fewer electives and counseling services. District leaders said Davis Unified would lose $3.2 million from its 2013-14 budget if voters rejected the measure.
Davis is known for high-achieving schools and has a history of approving parcel taxes to help pay for education. Measure E won with 69 percent of the vote and was the fifth school tax that Davis approved since 2007.
Davis attorney Alan Fernandes, an ardent Measure E supporter who had an unsuccessful school board run last year, said the state Supreme Court's decision on an Alameda Unified School District parcel tax would not undermine Davis' funding.
"Not at all. That's my simple response. That's not what (the decision) said at all," Fernandes said.
"It doesn't clearly state that all parcel taxes are invalid," he added. "The way I look at it, it will require some modification, but it won't invalidate E. Davis and Alameda tried to pass taxes with fairness in mind. I think there's a compelling case to make to modify parcel taxes accordingly."
Plaintiffs in Borikas v. Alameda Unified School District argued that Alameda's Measure H in 2008 did not tax parcels in the district equally and created different classifications of taxpayers in violation of state law.
Measure H taxed small commercial and industrial parcels and most residential parcels at $120 per parcel per year. It taxed commercial and residential parcels larger than 2,000 square feet as much as $9,500 per year.
The state's 1st District Court of Appeal in March capped Alameda's special tax at $120 per parcel and invalidated the parts of the measure that taxed commercial and industrial properties at more than $120 per parcel.
The California Supreme Court in June let the appellate ruling stand. The case now goes back to Alameda Superior Court to determine whether Alameda Unified must return revenue to taxpayers.
"The Borikas case was an example of school districts overreaching," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
The ruling could affect school districts across the state that rely on special taxes that impose different rates on property owners. Davis tax critics see similarities between their city's measure and the Alameda parcel tax.
The Alameda measure "charged homeowners and property owners differently," Granda said. "In Davis, (Measure E) charged property owners and apartment dwellers differently. The court of appeals said districts must charge equally."
The numbers of California school districts with parcel taxes has grown steadily in the last 10 years, from 57 in 2003-2004 to 108 in 2012-2013, according to the education nonprofit EdSource. About one in 10 school districts in the state have parcel taxes in place.
California's Proposition 13 imposes statewide limits on how governments tax properties based on value, but school districts can impose a special tax on individual parcels with two-thirds approval from voters. Legislative Democrats have proposed reducing the vote threshold to 55 percent.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, called parcel taxes "the only tool that's available to supplement school funding at the local level."
But Granda said parcel taxes are a Prop. 13 end-around, allowing school districts and other entities the ability to repeatedly tax to raise revenue.
"They put measures that they say are temporary, but in fact, they are permanent - one (parcel tax) after another," Granda said. "I want kids to succeed, but I don't want to cheat taxpayers."
Yolo Superior Court Judge Dan Maguire is scheduled to hear Granda's suit against Measure E on July 29.
But public finance attorney Michael Colantuono of Grass Valley expects the Legislature to soon find a solution to the parcel tax issue.
"This is a temporary problem, and the Legislature is looking to fix it," Colantuono said. "A lot of school districts will be affected until it gets fixed, but it will get fixed."
Bonta has introduced Assembly Bill 59, which would give school districts greater leeway in assessing parcel taxes that impose different rates. His bill has stalled so far.
Call The Bee's Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.