Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Penny Tax"? (Of Local Interest Only)

(I don't think anyone will really care about this post.  It's just something I felt like grumbling about today.  Maybe the next one will be better.)

Our county will vote next month on a proposed one-cent sales tax increase.  The extra tax revenue is meant to help fund the county's school system, which apparently still needs more money, even after making staff cuts earlier in the school year.

Teachers and students in Baldwin County were left in a world of hurt when they saw their funding resources plummet $61 million.

Last November, we spoke with the state assistant superintendent of schools, Craig Pouncey about the financial crisis. He said the district was warned years ago that this would happen.

Baldwin County School Board members have long maintained they want a premier learning environment for students.

But in trying to create such an atmosphere State Assistant Superintendent Craig Pouncey said, the district may have lived beyond their means.

“We have been working with school systems for the last two years to prepare them for this inevitable downturn. Some districts chose to listen to what we were saying two years ago and begin to downsize; primarily their staffing levels in anticipation of reduced funding,” said Pouncey.

In the last two years, state schools have lost billions of dollars in state appropriations. That's one fourth of all state revenue devoted to public education. According to the state assistant superintendent, the loss of revenue was inevitable. Pouncey told Fox10 News in anticipation of a budget shortfall, the state started working with districts in 2006 to help them establish at least a one-month operating reserve.

“We have been working with school districts with the goal of establishing at least a minimum a one month operating reserve for each school district. This past school year we had 21 school systems that lacked the desired one month operating balance,” said Pouncey.

Baldwin County School board member Bob Callahan argues differently.

“We thought we were supposed to do the best job we could do and not accept limitations on what a child could learn. So it's very difficult to accept an attitude from Montgomery that you solve your problem by lowering your standards as oppose to lets get together and solve this problem, fix the tax base, fix the revenue string and look at the whole thing,” Callahan said.

There are many reasons why Baldwin County schools are struggling to make grade when it comes to funding. The cost of health insurance for education workers has increased by 72 percent since 2003. Despite staffing reductions, the district is still in the red.
Education is all the talk in Baldwin County. There is a one-cent sales tax increase up for vote next month. Some say it will save education in the county, others disagree. In fact, a group has formed to stand against the tax.

Administrators at Daphne High School held a public meeting Tuesday night to talk to the public about what could happen if the one-cent sales tax is not passed. Those with the school system say more teachers will be lost and more programs cut.

"The situation here in Baldwin County is that we're in dire need. I'm always against increased taxes however we're in a situation where we need to something," said David Kirchharr.

"The academics are very important of course, the athletics also. Seeing your kid be a team player and be apart of something," said Riley Gatewood.

Administrators and parent groups from the different schools have organized the meetings to inform the public. Now, they aren't the only ones wanting to talk about the tax.

"It's a $75 million tax that's being sold to the people as a one-penny sales tax. That just isn't right," said Dean Young.

Young has started the "Axe The Tax" campaign. The South Baldwin resident said people approached him to start the group. He said it's not the citizens responsibility to bail out the school system.

"What we see here is a mismanagement of money the has been sent to the school system. Other systems were warned to cut back and they did. Baldwin County didn't," Young said.

Young said he will now do his best to educate the public. Young also announced last month his intention of running for Lt. Governor. When asked if this had any connection to that, Young said he had to stand up for what's right and said if he can't do that in his own county, how could he ever do that for the state.

The sales tax vote in Baldwin County is set for March 23.
I'm not sure what to think.  Of course you want your local schools to be good, even if you don't have any children going to those schools.  On the other hand, my gut reaction to more taxation (even this benign-sounding "penny tax") is "Oh no you don't!  We're taxed enough already!"

Confusion aside, here are a few things I do believe:

First, anything run by the government-- including schools-- will squander money.  Why-oh-why can't they find a penny-pincher to take charge?  Maybe penny-pincher is the wrong word-- or at least has the wrong connotation.  We need someone who will spend wisely-- someone who will treat the taxpayers' hard-earned cash as though it were the fruit of their own toil-- with that same degree of care and consideration.

Second, more money isn't always the key to a quality education.  Increased funding often leads to nothing more than increased waste.  You need enough money to pay for a dedicated, knowledgeable teacher-- a safe place for the learning to take place-- and a few basic materials, such as books, pencils, and paper.  Everything else that I can think of is extra.  Are those extras nice?  Sure!  But they aren't strictly necessary.

(And as any bargain shopper can tell you, you can get a lot of extras for a little cash, if you're careful.  The problem is that people tend not to be careful when they're shopping with someone else's money.  And let's face it, some people aren't even careful with their own money, or else we wouldn't have so much personal debt in this country.  But that's a whole other issue. . .)

Third, if athletics/extracurriculars are the main issue, I'm afraid I don't see an issue.  Those things needn't cost as much as they apparently are costing.  If necessary, increase fees, made do with the uniforms, equipment, etc. you have, cut less popular programs, call for volunteers (parents, for instance) to fill the gaps in instruction, and so on.  I'm sorry, but I'm just not that sympathetic on this subject.  Some people want you to feel awful at the thought of cutbacks in athletics and other extracurricular activities, but I don't see the need to boo-hoo.

Maybe it'd be better if school was for education only and those other things were something completely separate-- something done outside and in addition to school, funded (maybe even organized) by the parents, team members (though fund-raising), and (on a voluntary basis) the community . (Not that I harbor any illusions that that will ever happen, of course.  People care too much about the tradition of the high school football team.)

P.S.  I think that local news channel (and maybe the others-- haven't check them lately) needs someone like me to proofread their articles before they post them online.  I'm not saying I'm perfect, myself, but I still find way too many mistakes to cringe over in most of their (web-)printed stories.   Maybe they just don't care, but it looks so unprofessional!