Should Durham create a special tax to benefit schools?

April 5, 2010 

Every Monday, columnists debate a topical issue in our Faceoff feature. This week's topic: Durham school spending, with two guest columnists who are Durham school parents: Michael Oehler and Mark Austin. First up, Oehler.

Proposed tax is an investment in the future of our city and county

By Michael Oehler

In this economic climate, how can I advocate for a Durham school district tax of 33 cents on every $100 of assessed property value?

Only with an exemption for seniors citizens and disabled persons on fixed incomes.Only if county commissioners are required to maintain their portion of Durham Public School funding. And only if the county commissioners, City Council and the school board unite to create an independent committee of school stakeholders - including local politicians, parents, parole officers, teachers, business leaders, students themselves - whose task would be to examine and make transparent the state of Durham's schools, provide policy recommendations and investigate equity in the system.

If we're not willing to make an investment in our children, who is? Durham's schools are funded locally. We are fortunate to be able to eat local and shop local; now I suggest we tax local, too. An improved school system will attract investment and growth, not hinder it.

Durham schools have many successes, but some students still sit in broken desks and crumbling buildings. Art, music, theater and dance are available in some schools, but not all. Remediation, mentoring and tutoring are provided to some students who need them, but not to those who lack transportation or a qualifying program. Students eat "low-fat super donuts" from school menus and play on dirt fields. The power to change this is ours.

We'll either pay now with adequate funding, or pay later with more jails, police and social problems.

Thirty-three cents is a wise investment in Durham's future.

Michael Oehler, a Durham parent, writes the blog supportdurhamschools.blogspot.com supportdurhamschools.blogspot.com.

It's time to change how we think about teaching our kids

By Mark Austin

First and foremost, I am passionate about Durham having the best schools possible.

That said, I have a hard time with the proposal to yet again increase our tax burden. Durham's combined city/county tax rate is already one of the highest in North Carolina. While Durham doesn't match Chapel Hill in per-student spending, we spend more than our peer districts, including Wake County.

This isn't a matter of insufficient revenue, rather how funds are allocated.

Durham schools abandoned Reading Recovery while extending funding for "specials" such as art, music and physical education. Many of these subjects are ones a college-educated teacher should be able to teach without need for a specialist, at least at the elementary level.

The district spent thousands on magic boards, interactive projectors and white boards installed last year. But this technology doesn't replace the one-on-one instruction a teacher can provide. At a budget-line level, this is the trade-off the school district made.

Kids today spend hours a day strapped in the back of vans sending them to distant schools. Wouldn't time and funds be far better spent on tutoring rather than driving them around?

Many districts around the country dealt with similar issues by merging county services, having the libraries managed by the public library system.

Not all of these ideas may work or apply. But it is time to radically change how we think about teaching our kids and see if we can do things in a better way, rather than continuing to do the same things with just more taxpayer money.

Mark Austin, the parent of two students in Durham Public Schools, is business development manager for SAS Institute.

Send comments and topic ideas to faceoff@newsobserver.com.

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