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"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.