Note: The North Carolina primary is less than a week away as I write this, but I am not offering my predictions for local races. Instead, here are the issues I predict the county commissioners and school board members will work on between now and their next election in 2020.
▪ Durham needs the best-paid teachers in the state
Studies show that as the average person acquires more education, they are more likely to vote liberal. So clearly Republicans would be cutting their own throats to improve public education, right? So state teacher pay will lag the national average for the rest of the decade. Fewer will become teachers and more will leave the profession. What to do? If Durham has the best paid teachers in North Carolina, then over time we’ll also have the best teachers in North Carolina: we can draw the cream of the crop and they will slowly replace any weak performers.
▪ Durham needs 5% of students and workers commuting by bike
A pro-bicycle policy is not only inexpensive, but it has so many concrete benefits; in that it’s like the Swiss Army knife of issues. More biking helps school kids, workers and commuters in numerous ways. On the school front it helps us fight obesity, boosts mental fitness and cuts the cost of busing. On the home front it allows kids to be more independent after school. The working poor could bike to jobs and shopping. Commuters will face less congestion. And we can’t forget the reduced impact on climate disruption if we’re burning less gas. Plus, bikes are just a lot of fun.
▪ Durham needs to resolve the disconnect between commissioners levying taxes for schools they don’t run
Perhaps in the 19th or 20th centuries it made sense for a school board to set a budget on tax monies that were raised by the county commissioners. But to say that’s still the best way doesn’t pass the straight face test. Either the commissioners should be levying the taxes and setting the school budget or the school board should have that unified responsibility. I don’t care either way. But either option would be better than the low-grade civil war that we have suffered from for all of the 32 years I’ve lived in Durham.
▪ Durham needs to pay government workers at least $15 per hour
Most employers mistakenly see workers’ pay as a cost rather than an investment. A book called “The Good Jobs Strategy” by a professor of management at MIT offers case studies of companies that pay above market wages while keeping real costs down and earning healthy profits. We can do that too. Granted, local government is essentially a nonprofit, but the benefits of high-performing workers will profit taxpayers with better service and less waste.
▪ Durham needs universal pre-kindergarten
The biggest enemy of school success is growing up in poverty. And short of solving our country’s economic problems, the best local way to fight that enemy and help poor families is to offer universal pre-K classes. In New York City, the state government funded it, but we won’t be so lucky. We should pay for it ourselves, recognizing the savings in social services and criminal justice that come with increased school success.
Where Will the Money Come From?
The General Assembly now works for a well-heeled minority of wealthy people, so Durham will have to pay for these improvements ourselves. Here are three sources of tax revenue.
▪ First, millions, if not tens-of-millions of dollars can come from right-sizing the school bureaucracy as described in the Durham News by those liberal writers from the blog Bull City Rising: tinyurl.com/h798ueo.
▪ Second, the prepared meals tax (40 percent of which would come from out-of-towners) could be revived and cover existing expenses as dedicated revenue for the county’s most important cultural amenity: our library. Like all local revenues, a meals tax would be regressive, but our increasingly sophisticated library offers the most benefit for children and the working poor. And the more than $6 million of property tax revenue that would be freed up, could go toward universal pre-K.
▪ Third, a High Point University poll shows that almost three-quarters of Tarheels would pay more in taxes to bring teacher pay up to the national average. I’ll bet that percentage is even higher in Durham. For those afraid to raise the property tax, they should know that having the highest property tax rate in the Triangle for decades has not hurt Durham’s growth in the least. A penny hike in the property tax would cost a poor homeowner less than a dollar a month – much less than their benefit from well-schooled kids in their neighborhood. And no elected official has ever been thrown out of office due to a tax increase. We are just not that kind of community.
But we are the kind of community that understands how investing in our entry-level workers and in our young children can make Durham a better place for everyone. We can certainly afford that.
Frank Hyman has held two local elected offices, authored the first living wage ordinance in the South and is the policy analyst for Southern Working Class Consulting.