"What kind of city is Charlotte?" friends and acquaintances from out of town sometimes ask. In the past, I've usually said something like, "A bit too tightly wound for my taste, but there's a strong sense of community involvement and concern that's rare these days in cities this size." If one of them asked me the same thing today, though, I don't know what I'd say. Considering how nonchalantly city and county "leaders" seem to be taking the news of damaging cuts to our public schools, not to mention the drastic cuts in library service — and don't get me started on cuts for special needs kids — I'm the one who's now wondering, but in stronger terms, "What the hell kind of city is this, anyway?"
I'm a longtime resident of Charlotte, and, call me quirky, but I think our schools and libraries (as well as roads, fire and police protection) aren't luxuries or fripperies to be cast off or crippled at the first sign of trouble -- they're the basics of a city's life and essential civic responsibilities. Until recently, I thought local leaders thought along the same lines.
Apparently, I was wrong. With local unemployment at record levels, uncertainty in the air, and other countries' educational systems outpacing ours year after year, what happens when school budgets tighten up? The kids get screwed. Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman and the school board are already prepping for more teacher layoffs and other cuts in the next school year. That means bigger classes, and fewer resources for students. And although no one's talking openly about it, the draconian school budget cuts inevitably also mean a lowering of the overall quality of education.
Yes, yes, the budget figures look dismal. But what worries this taxpayer and former CMS parent even more than where the money for schools will come from, is that Charlotte -- the board, superintendent, county commission, voters, media, etc. -- isn't taking the fundamental, overriding importance of educating kids seriously enough. For anyone who remembers the city's past school battles over integration, busing, or neighborhood schools, our burg's new, blasé attitude toward the massive cuts being bandied about signals a breathtaking 180-degree turn. Emotions ran high during those old education battles, and loud, public disagreements raged through the community, but the underlying assumption of those arguments was that we had to figure out how best to serve the students. No one on either side ever doubted that all sides were pursuing policies they thought would be of greater benefit to our kids' education. In today's debates, if you can call them that, precious few defenders of education as a community treasure are being heard.
It's such a well-documented truth, it has become a cliché, but the price that students and society pay for giving kids a subpar education is far greater than the money it takes to educate them well. Study after study after study conclusively show that communities that let the quality of education drop wind up with higher crime rates, more unemployable citizens, greater needs for social welfare programs, and -- maybe this will perk up ears on the county commission -- a smaller tax base to work with. That hasn't changed just because the county's low on funds. Beyond the economic considerations, though, lies the truth that educating citizens is an absolutely basic (as in, "communities turn to crap without it" kind of basic) necessity. You'd think this would be a given in a civilized country, not to mention in a city that has long prided itself on good schools and their power to draw new businesses to town. But you'd apparently be wrong.
Our library system is no less a necessity, particularly in these tough times when so many people depend on libraries for computer access, building resumes, etc. Wrecking the quality of our library system -- which, until a couple of weeks ago, was the envy of cities nationwide, and now doesn't even plan to order any new books -- is no more acceptable than if government suddenly said it wouldn't fix streets and highways for the next couple of years. Or that we all had to start hauling our own garbage to the dump. My favorite comment on the library mess came from a woman I overheard talking to a couple of friends outside Morrison Library: "If I wanted to live somewhere with crappy libraries, I'd have stayed in Monroe."
I've written before, in various blog posts, that the county should raise property taxes enough to cover the projected deficits for schools, social programs and libraries. E-mails from readers have been overwhelmingly against that idea, with most objections saying that there's no such thing as a temporary tax increase. There's no reason, however, the county commission couldn't write up a bill that would mandate that, as the economy recovers and revenue picks up, the tax would be gradually lowered back to its present rate.
Getting the commission to consider an increase these days, though, is next to impossible. Which tells me they're not getting much, if any, pressure to do so by "community leaders," never mind the citizens whose kids will be hurt by the school cuts. The community's apparent lack of will to act boldly brings me back to my original question: What kind of city is this anyway?
John Grooms writes about topics just like this every day on Creative Loafing's news and culture blog, The CLog. Visit www.theclogblog.com and check him out.