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Summit Hears About Needs

And plugs real estate transfer tax

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At first, the real reasons for the highly publicized but bizarre education summit held by school and county leaders last week were unclear. School and county politicians have already seen most of the presentations bureaucrats gave at the summit, or they will see them again soon. Discipline issues, which have become a community concern, were given about 12 minutes at the end of the day when people — mainly members of the media — had left. Almost an hour was spent explaining basics such as the county's role in funding schools, and another hour on the need for more school nurses, an issue that wasn't on the radar until Assistant Superintendent of Student, Family and Community Services Tony Bucci brought it up at the summit.

While more school nurses would be great, this seemed a diversion from the main point of the summit — which was what? Apparently, over a dozen politicians spent an entire day listening to presentations some of them could have given themselves in order to build support for a real estate transfer tax, and for the 20 percent increase in funding the schools are seeking.

The Charlotte Chamber's education group has been studying the transfer tax option behind closed doors since last year under the guidance of school board member and VP of the Chamber's education group Kit Kramer. If the transfer tax became reality, one percent of a home's value would pass to the county every time it is bought or sold. Creative Loafing's attempts to get minutes from the Chamber meetings on the tax were rebuffed by Kramer.

Last year, says Mecklenburg County legislator Dan Clodfelter, local leaders, including School Board Chairman Joe White and Superintendent James Pughsley, asked him to sponsor legislation to fund a state study commission to look at ways to pay for new schools. The legislation passed, but Gov. Mike Easley is dragging his feet in appointing what White boldly referred to at the summit as the "transfer tax study committee." White said he believes Easley may let the committee get started after the final version of the lottery bill passes.

Given all that, the bellyaching by politicians about needing a new source of revenue seemed to be the real point of the summit. Three Republican county commissioners and school board member Larry Gauvreau, who generally oppose increasing taxes for just about anything, apparently caught on at the last minute. The four sent an email announcing they were boycotting the festivities the day before, although Republican Dan Bishop did eventually show up.

At the moment, it appears the school board will be petitioning the county to put $600 million in bonds for school construction on the ballot this fall, which would ultimately be paid for with property tax revenue unless the county gets a transfer tax.

Taxpayers can't afford to keep paying the bills for all of this school construction, said School Board member Vilma Leake in support of the transfer tax, despite the fact that those who buy and sell homes here are the same taxpayers who already pay school bond bills.

Whatever the case, there is some rumbling that the bonds, which will likely include funds for several suburban schools the school board has put off building, could face political friction. Suburban school building has been a political hot potato since 1998, when the courts ended forced busing for racial integration here. Some local leaders believe that more schools in the suburbs will lead to more racial segregation of both urban and suburban schools.

At the summit, school board member Louise Woods questioned the need for large numbers of new schools, suggesting that trailers were educationally adequate facilities, a line of thinking guaranteed to enrage suburban parents who feel they've waited their turn while the system built schools in less populous central and middle ring areas of the county.

Though the school system has yet to offer an official bond proposal, Democratic County Commissioner Norman Mitchell, who did not attend the summit, is threatening to lobby his fellow Democrats not to support the bonds if Republicans on the commission complain too loudly about the tax hike Democrats say they'll need to pay for increasing school costs.

Building the schools suburbanites and ultimately Republicans want will add more debt service to the budget, Mitchell says, which will cause more tax hikes, so it is disingenuous for Republicans to advocate for the bonds but against tax hikes, then turn around and blame the Democrats for the tax hikes next year when commissioners are up for election.

"They (the Republicans) are complaining about tax increases and about school overcrowding," said Mitchell. "Is that fair? They have used tax increases to beat us over the head for years. (Democrat Commissioners) Parks Helms, Wilhelmenia Rembert and Jennifer Roberts could be voted out because of the tax increase. Our people will get hammered and the Republicans are going to benefit from it."

It's a problem Republican County Commissioner Jim Puckett identified earlier on. When he was consoling fellow Republican County Commissioner Dan Bishop about the fact that Republicans won only three of nine seats on the commission last fall, Puckett says he told Bishop that the upside was that by winning control of the commission, the Democrats get stuck dealing with the county's fiscal mess. "It's their problem," he said.

Meanwhile, Democratic county commissioners Roberts and Valerie Woodard say Mitchell may be jumping the gun a bit. They say they're not willing to play partisan politics with the bonds. Only time will tell.

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