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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.

"If there were a period of time that went by and it was clear to the public that [the school system] was really messing it up, it would be a lot easier to nail the responsibility for the mess-up on the party to which it belongs and let the voters hopefully vote a little more intelligently," said Samuelson. "Now [the school board] just plays pass-the-buck and it is hard for people to know who messed up."

There's just one problem with all of this. Republican leaders are under intense pressure from overcrowded suburbanites who want what will likely amount to hundreds of millions worth of new schools. Many suburban leaders are so desperate for these schools that they don't care if building them causes a tax increase. The unspoken, underlying fear is that if the schools aren't built, eventually suburban students will be shipped to largely segregated urban schools with lower test scores, high minority populations and less experienced teachers.

Despite the priority system Republican leaders claim they want, the incumbents say they will vote for $75 million in extra spending for suburban schools this week despite the fact that it falls outside the tough-choice guidelines they claim they want to impose on the school board. Dulin also supports the spending.

With suburban school advocates promising more such requests each year -- and in some cases threatening to run against sitting commissioners if they don't pony up the money -- Republicans face some tough choices.

If they control the county commission, will their approval of school budgets be based on where schools are built? Samuelson says no, yet she also plans to support the $75 million.

Ramirez and Dulin also say suburban schools are a priority for them, but how that will shake out financially is unclear. Right now, no one from either side of the aisle is willing to hazard a guess as to how much suburban building might cost or where the money might come from, so it's easy to be for it and against tax increases.

All three Republicans also want to prioritize spending for the rest of the county's budget, ranking the priority of programs according to importance. No one had any specific cuts they wanted to make, but if the economy doesn't continue to improve, they will likely have to choose between making cuts and keeping taxes down. And since money to pay the debt for suburban schools comes out of the same pot, they'll have yet more tough choices to make.

"Will it get more painful to use that process?" said Ramirez. "Painful in the form of cutting things maybe, but the county is also increasing its revenues and hopefully this economy is getting better."

The Democrat WayHow tight the CMS budget really is is a matter of opinion, but everyone agrees that the system is growing by at least 4,500 kids a year while the county commission has held the school system's operating budget relatively flat. This year, despite initial howling by school officials that they didn't get enough funding, the school system quickly turned around and found the funds to pay for new programs it had originally asked the county to pay for.

How long they will be able to do that, however, is unknown if school funding stays relatively flat as the number of students continues to grow.

The affordability of housing, which suffers when there is a tax increase to pay for education, is critical to the county's economic health. But so is the quality of education here, say the Democrats.

Between 1997 and 2001, county taxes went up by 30 percent, and by 15 percent in 2001 alone. If you count revaluation, the tax hike over those four years was closer to 50 percent. But since then, there was a tax cut in 2002 by the Republican-controlled board and a small tax hike this year that included a boost for county services but not for schools.

The school system is now falling behind, says incumbent Democrat Parks Helms, a lawyer and former state legislator who is seeking his seventh term on the commission on a platform that promises a small tax increase.

"I have continually supported increased County funding for CMS' operating budget," Helms recently wrote to some constituents in Huntersville. "Surging enrollment requires increased funding for operating costs. Opening new schools also impacts the operating budget by requiring additional staff, teachers and supplies. . . A truly good school system is very expensive. The cost of a failed school system is even higher."

Newcomer Jennifer Roberts, an international politics professor at UNCC and former executive director of an educational non-profit, the Charlotte World Affairs Council, is more coy than Helms about whether she'll vote to raise taxes. She says she hopes not, but she's also been clear throughout her campaign about the need for more school funding and says she will raise taxes if it's needed.

"With the kind of growth we've had in the last three years -- 12,000 new students -- keeping operating funding flat has done a disservice to the students," said Roberts. "I understand people want to be efficient and look for streamlining of middle management of the school system and that sort of thing, but the reality is that the cuts are affecting classrooms. Whatever it takes, we need to do to make sure classrooms are not affected and that the teaching remains adequate."

Democrat Wilhelmenia Rembert, a former school board chair who lost her race for re-election last year, supports more funding for schools, and said that the slow economic recovery may require a tax increase, but that she'll try to find ways to fund everything without increasing taxes first.

Like the Republicans, all three Democratic candidates say they want to address suburban overcrowding and continue to renovate and replace more urban schools simultaneously, though school system leaders have expressed doubts about their capacity to do both at the same time. All three believe that the county and the school system can work together to do it despite the costs and challenges.

"We have a crowding problem, we have an inequity problem," said Roberts. "It is something that I think is in danger of damaging our economic growth. We had decrease in white students in this system this past year and we need to put a lot of effort into it [the school system] now for the sake of everybody in this community. It is affecting our workforce and our quality of life."

Helms, too, thinks the school system will fall behind if it has to divide a limited pot of money between operating and building expenses, as the Republicans generally want.

"The tremendous population growth that is currently occurring in Huntersville and other suburban areas demands that we build additional schools for the surging numbers of students," Helms wrote. "At the same time, we must address the need to upgrade, expand and renovate many older school buildings. Construction to provide seats for additional students and construction/repairs to renovate and improve older school facilities are equally important."

Both Roberts and Helms are critical of the idea of running the county like a business and think supporting human services is important. Roberts likes the Republican plan to prioritize programs; she's just not so sure she's as wild about cutting funds for the ones that don't rank highly.

"It's a challenge to meet the service needs of a growing community when you have the explosive growth that we have without raising taxes so that you drive people away," she said. "The process of prioritization is a good one. I think what is a little unclear is does that necessarily mean that things that are a low priority don't get funded?"

Rembert says she's willing to try it until a better way of making budget decisions comes along.

The last few years have seen almost continuous sniping between the commission and the school board. All three candidates want to change that by improving the relationship between the two bodies.

"I think we need to have a summit between the county and the school board and maybe bring in people from the Chamber and make an effort to say this is a serious issue," said Roberts.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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