Many of our schools are falling apart, and the $120 million school bond in Tuesday’s election won’t fix the problem. It treats only a few symptoms without addressing the cause. So a vote for the bond guarantees the problem will continue unabated. A vote for the bond will actually hurt the long-term health of our prized school system.
How bad is the problem? According to the county, the “schools alone have $330 million of outstanding deferred maintenance projects – older capital needs projects that need to be addressed.”
Wait, $330,000,000 in deferred maintenance? Clearly, people haven’t been doing their jobs for a long time. The system is dysfunctional. It’s broken. Therein lies the real problem.
For decades, our school board members and county commissioners have dutifully added new facilities as we’ve grown. But they’ve irresponsibly neglected maintaining them, as well as the older schools that predated them.
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How does this happen? In short, the budgeting process concentrates limited resources on operating costs. Upgrades and preventive maintenance are left for another day. That day never comes until there’s a real crisis, forcing the players to act. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.
It’s easier to spend for today than deal with tomorrow.
No private-sector business could survive like that. Eventually, a neglected factory won’t be able to produce quality goods. An antiquated office building will lose its tenants. A shabby retail center will drive customers, then stores, away.
But government can afford such bad management practices because ultimately taxpayers have no choice but to pay for them.
So now we’re in a crisis. A $330,000,000 crisis. But rather than fixing the system that got us into this mess, our elected officials are floating a bond on the ballot to bypass the system. It’s a stopgap measure that buys them time. It has the ancillary benefit of pinning the resulting tax increase on the voters.
If the bond passes, some repairs will be made in some schools. Some systems and facilities will be improved. The rest of the list will continue to fall behind, or deteriorate further. New issues will go unaddressed as well.
If the bond fails, what will happen? Immediately, nothing. The schools were open the day before the election; they’ll be open the day after the election. The world will not come to an end.
However, what may come to an end is the practice that got us here. Our school boards and the commissioners will have to roll up their sleeves, triage the issues, and fund repairs and improvements out of existing and future budgets – both operating and capital. This is not a question of whether we fix the schools; it’s only a question of how we fix them.
Can we do that without a bond? Sure. We’ve managed to build many expensive schools that way. We can certainly reallocate funds to keep them working the way they’re supposed to.
There will probably be tax increases involved. After all, they’ve piled up quite a large deficit. But since the commissioners themselves will have to vote to raise the tax rate, they may sharpen their pencils when deciding how to most efficiently and effectively address the problems.
They will have to make hard choices; we can’t pay for everything anymore. But prioritizing is a healthy habit, even if difficult. Eventually, voters will get their say on the choices made.
Finally, a failed bond referendum will prompt the Board of County Commissioners to insist that the school boards’ annual budget requests include adequate maintenance and improvement expenses. The commissioners won’t want to be put in this position again. That certainly won’t happen if the bond passes, because it gets them off the hook.
If schools are important to you, rejecting the bond will force systematic reforms that will improve their future conditions. On the other hand, if you vote for the bond you’ll be perpetuating a process that has harmed our students, teachers and, ultimately, the taxpayers. Today we’re facing $330,000,000. What will tomorrow bring?
Our elected officials need the message that we can’t afford business as usual. A no vote on the schools bond will send that signal loud and clear.
Mark Zimmerman owns a home and real estate business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org