2 solutions to our schools’ money problems
What is most disturbing about the current reports that our Fayette school board is about to perform radical surgery on the system, through a drastic slashing of expenses and school closings, is that it is so unnecessary, and of course harmful for the community.
Where there is no vision, we learn from the Scriptures, the people perish. I am afraid we have a school board without vision, which prompts me to speak up, not so much for the benefit of the clueless voters who elect our school board members as for the benefit of the nonvoting students who have to suffer the consequences.
Solution Number One: Last November, in a show of support for our public school system, a majority of our Fayette voters chose to keep our local 1-percent sales tax for schools for another six years.
The main problem with this decision is that, under current Georgia law, the money can only be used for capital expenditures, like building new schools (which we need like we need a hole in the head), or paying off the loans on existing ones (empty or not).
Laws are made by man, and they can be changed by man. We, in Fayette County, have representatives and senators in the Georgia General Assembly, most notably Sen. Ronnie Chance and Rep. Matt Ramsey, to whom the school board can talk and of whom they rightfully can ask that they try to secure a change in the school local option sales tax law, at least as it applies to Fayette County, so the sales tax money can be used for operations and maintenance.
I have not looked at recent statistics on how much revenue this school sales tax produces right now, but it should be in the range of $20 million a year. That seems to cover the budget shortage currently facing the school system.
All it takes is for the school board to plead for relief with our local legislators and ask for action. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Currently, much of the school sales tax money goes toward reducing school bond property taxes. Reducing taxes while hurting our kids is definitely not statesmanlike.
Is the school board too lacking in imagination to figure this out? Is it too shy to approach our legislators? Is it too proud to ask? Some concerned parents may want to ask them.
Solution Number Two: When thinking about property taxes, far too many people think only of themselves and their own homes. Property taxes are in fact paid on a lot of commercial properties, a great many of which are owned by nonvoting large corporate owners. People who think sales taxes are also paid by visitors should likewise think that property taxes are also paid by large corporations.
Thus, reducing property taxes provides quite a break for commercial interests. These commercial interests benefit from access to an educated workforce, so it does not seem so unfair to see them contribute their fair share to public education.
When the school board reduces property taxes for school bonds by using its sales tax revenue, it provides a break for commercial owners as much as it does for individual homeowners. People should realize that and accept that it might not be smart at all to cut property taxes in this time of great need.
Regardless of all this, one must realize that our home values have by and large been declining since the 2008 financial crisis, and the assessed values of real estate have gone down. Since property taxes are based on assessed values, when a home drops in value from $300,000 to $200,000, a school tax that might have been $3,000 drops to $2,000.
If that home sends two children to our public schools, the cost of educating these children does not go down while their parents’ tax goes down.
The normal way to handle this problem is to increase the tax rate, so the net income that’s needed is produced. To produce $3,000, it takes 1.5 percent for a house valued at $200,000, while only 1 percent is needed if it is valued at $300,000.
The school board has repeatedly insisted that state law does not permit it to charge more than 20 mills — equivalent to 1.2 percent of a property’s value under our current system — for maintenance and operations, and that is what it is charging now.
By saying that, the school board is withholding vital information from the public.
Here’s what I wrote in a private email to then-Board of Education Chairman Leonard Presberg on Jan. 20, 2012 (a year ago):
“As you were recently quoted in a local newspaper as having stated that our Fayette school system had reached the property tax rate limit provided in the Georgia Constitution, I thought it might be useful (as one lawyer to another) to bring to your attention Georgia Constitution Article 8, Section 6, Paragraph II, which states, ‘The mill limitation in effect on June 30, 1983, for any school system may be increased or removed by action of the respective boards of education, but only after such action has been approved by a majority of the qualified voters voting thereon in the particular school system to be affected in the manner provided by law.’”
To this I added:
“On a practical basis, I can say this: (1) a vote on this could be had this summer or fall; (2) I concede the effect of a positive vote is likely to be delayed beyond the budget the board is now considering; (3) our elderly homeowners are unlikely to vote against this as they are largely exempt under local law; (4) it’s not just homeowners who pay property tax as it is paid by commercial owners and on all motor vehicles; (5) I realize our Fayette school board has used up a lot of the public’s goodwill by improvidently building unneeded schools.”
And I concluded with this statement:
“Just the same, I consider it unscholarly to blame the Georgia constitution for the board’s unwillingness or inability to persuade the public to change the 20-mill cap (found in the paragraph that precedes the one I just quoted to you). The key to unlocking that cap is, in a manner of speaking, in your pocket. It always has been.”
I received a gracious reply from Mr. Presberg, which read thus:
“Thanks for the note. You are, of course, correct as to how the millage rate could be changed. I also think you correctly identify some of the practical considerations regarding a referendum to increase the rate. I will try to make sure that I am quoted more accurately when discussing this matter. I am always interested in hearing the concerns of our citizens.”
It is possible, of course, that voter anger could have sunk the proposal to allow the 20-mill cap for school operations to be raised a bit, possibly to 23.
One could reason that if the school bond millage is going down on account of the sales tax, the decrease in school bond tax could have made up for the increase in school operations tax, and folks wouldn’t have been any worse off, though our county children would be better off.
The Fayette school board’s current chairman is a college math teacher. She could then, and still can, understand the limited math involved, and she can explain it all to the voters. That’s what leadership is all about.
The victims our school board is about to sacrifice for its want of wisdom and leadership are our county children, and there comes a point where they need an advocate to step up and speak up for them. I tell myself it should be a parent’s role to do that, and not mine, but when no one else speaks up some of us need to.
[Claude Y. Paquin, a Fayette County resident and father of two grown children educated in our Georgia public schools, is a retired lawyer and actuary.]