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Much Ado About Taxes and Schools

At-large race is crucial this year

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Consider this your read-between-the-lines guide to the at-large Mecklenburg County Commission race. This is probably the most important commission race in at least a decade, but with national races dominating the airwaves, the main issues will probably be lost in an electoral blur. That's too bad, because Mecklenburg is at a turning point in its ability to compete, just at a time when the county and the school system finally confront issues they've been pushing aside for years.There are three at-large seats up for grabs, and the political party that captures two of those seats will control the nine-member commission with a 5-4 advantage. Race relations, property values and the county's ability to compete economically hang in the balance. This year, it's a matter of choosing between paths at a fork in the road, not between pretty faces. Elect two Republicans at-large and the county will go one way. Elect two Democrats and it will go the other.

At the heart of the battle is where our children will go to school and how much we'll pay to send them there. At stake are escalating tax rates, housing affordability and the quality of education. Suburban schools are bursting at the seams, and it would likely take hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools to address the problem. Urban schools are becoming more segregated. Boosting urban and suburban test scores will take money, the school system says. Since the county commission decides how much money to give the school system for buildings and operations, it has the power to choose the county's direction. But if it spends too much, the resultant tax hikes will continue to make the county increasingly unaffordable.

There seems to be little middle ground between Democratic and Republican county commission candidates this year. Put simply, with Republicans you'll probably get stable or lower taxes and less funding for schools and services. With the Democrats, a tax hike is likely, but so is increased funding for schools and services.The Republican WayUnder the current Republican-controlled board, the county has only recently begun prioritizing its spending. Right now, the board is pretty moderate due to one of the five Republicans who control it, Tom Cox, occasionally siding with the Democrats; he joined them to vote for a tax increase earlier this year. But Cox isn't running again and if voters elect two of the three Republicans currently running, the board will become more conservative both fiscally and socially.

One-term incumbent Dan Ramirez and newcomer Andy Dulin, a realtor, pledge that they won't raise taxes if elected, but will instead rein in county spending. Ruth Samuelson, a commission district rep who is running at-large for the first time, is also unlikely to vote to raise taxes, but says she doesn't make tax pledges.

For the last year, the school board and the Republicans on the commission have been squabbling over money. The school system says the county isn't giving it enough money to operate effectively, and the Republicans think the school system doesn't prioritize and spends with no long-term plans. Because the school system gets as much money as the commission will give it, it hasn't had to make hard decisions about which programs are ineffective or how to get more out of what works, they say.

When commissioners asked school officials recently for a five-year school building plan and details of what it would cost so the commission could budget for it, the system couldn't immediately produce one, a disappointment to Republicans who want to see the school system begin to deal with overcrowding by prioritizing where it most needs to build schools. It's one of the things some call proof that the system operates on the fly with no long-term fiscal plan beyond asking commissioners for more money and driving up the tax rate.

Republicans want to limit school spending to a certain amount of money per student each year and force the school system to live within it.

"I believe that when everybody buckles down, the school system can do and will do with what they're given," said Dulin. "And what they're given in my opinion at $260 million dollars of tax money is enough."

The political goal here is to force school system leaders to make hard budget decisions and be held accountable for them. The yearly per-pupil sum would include debt for building new schools and for operating the system; this would force the school system to prioritize between more building or improved classroom education. The way it works now, school leaders come to the commission twice a year, once for school bonds and once for operating funds. If school leaders don't get all the funds they ask for from the commission, they tend to blame commissioners -- usually it's the Republican commissioners -- for everything from test scores to overcrowding. Some, like Samuelson, say the fault may lie in how the school system is managed.

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