Not seeing the school forests for the low-tax trees dangerous for Wake

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Longtime residents of North Carolina and particularly Wake County realize that the most important reason for our success has been our commitment to high-quality public schools. Our state constitution specifically addresses the need, and historically the state has spent a majority of its revenues on education preschool, K-12 and college.

In recent years, our legislative leaders have decided that our state taxes must come down, and the rate has been lowered to be more competitive with surrounding states. Locally, our Wake County commissioners have focused on giving residents the lowest property taxes by far in our state. As a taxpayer, those low-tax trees look good to me.

But there are ramifications to having the lowest taxes (think Mississippi). In Wake County, per pupil spending on K-12 education has fallen over the last six years from $5,475 to $5,152 at the state level and $2,178 to $2,063 at the county level. A combined $438 decrease multiplied by Wake’s 150,000 students equals $65.7 million, not to mention the impact of inflation on those dollars.

Some might think the reduction could be offset by reducing the “bloated bureaucracy.” That old argument carries no water anywhere. It has been studied by consultants to death and is just not true. It doesn’t stop public school critics from repeating the mantra, though.

Facts are, the reduction was funded by cutting programs and not giving teachers and employees raises. But, I hear you say, the legislature gave teachers a 7 percent raise – that’s a beautiful tree or sound bite. Although lawmakers did increase total education funding and did increase teacher pay for the first five years to a flat $35,000, they offset those costs with reductions to experienced teacher pay (capped at $50,000 – can you believe that is now the career high after starting at $35,000?), eliminating the Teaching Fellows program and by not funding growth in student population (a huge cut for growing Wake County).

So we have the continued decline in per pupil funding even with an overall spending increase.

Where is the forest? Here it is.

Lawmakers are focused on reducing our state taxes and spending. This session, they will shift more expenses to local taxing entities (counties and municipalities). Those entities have only property taxes and sales taxes to raise any significant revenue. They will be forced to address it. The legislature will not care because raising local taxes will not be its problem.

But for the Wake County commissioners (now all Democrats after Republicans were swept out in November), if they want to improve education as we asked for with our vote, they will need to raise taxes – and for that they will be blamed! What a brilliant political plan. As long as we voting taxpayers cannot see the forest clearly, we will blame commissioners for raising taxes the legislature cut.

Wake County residents, even those without children in school, recognize the importance of a great school system. And because of that, they will want to increase funding to Wake County Public Schools through higher property and sales taxes – maybe not way higher, but higher. And they want better teacher pay, too.

So the challenge for commissioners is to figure out how to take further cuts in funding from the state, to raise taxes to offset those cuts and to improve public schools, all the while not riling voters.

How? They must work with the school board to restore that $65.7 million cut adjusted for inflation – that is a 7- to 8-cent property tax increase dedicated to K-12 operations. But it must be done over a few years so it doesn’t feel so bad – even though our current property tax rate is an average of 25 cents below those of major urban areas such as Durham, Forsyth, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties!

And we must have the option of a quarter-cent sales tax increase by referendum – why did the legislature prohibit this until 2016? – dedicated solely to teacher pay supplements in Wake County. So what if our supplement is already the highest? All research shows that the No. 1 factor in student learning is a high-quality teacher in the classroom. Let’s be selfish and get the best to come here.

Wake County residents need to recognize the limited trees of low taxes and restore the beautiful forest of the best K-12 education in the state and one of the best in the country.

Thomas B. Oxholm of Raleigh was a member of the Wake County Board of Education, 1999-2003.