Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Civility, righteousness and school funding

Tom Archie


I begin with a brief history of Idaho House Bill 197:

1980s: Having passed multiple consecutive two-year property tax levies for local school funding, the Blaine County School District is allowed by state legislators to continue with a permanent property tax levy. This rule applied to all counties with consecutively successful levies. Routine yellow slips for teachers become a thing of the past.

2006: Led by farms and other large property owners, the Legislature convenes a one-day special session to change school funding from the property tax to the sales tax. Districts are allowed property-tax levy elections every two years—permanent levies will be allowed if seven consecutive every-two-year levies are passed. With high property values in Blaine, McCall-Donnelly, Avery and Swan Valley school districts, and since these districts derive over 40 percent of their budgets from the property tax, they are allowed to continue with a permanent levy (they cannot raise the levy without an election). This deal ensures passage of the bill. 

2011: H197 is introduced by large-property owner, farmer, past McCall school board member and House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts. It will reverse the deal and require that Blaine County and the others return to every-two-year elections for the school district property tax funding. At this time, the dollar amount threatened every two years amounts to 53 to 56 percent of the budgets in Blaine and McCall-Donnelly districts. Permanent levies will once again be allowed if seven consecutive levies are passed.

In the Great Recession, legislators face what Superintendent Luna calls an "unsustainable funding" problem created by the 2006 change to sales tax funding, and they look to a few well-funded and innovative districts in the state. Instead of correcting the sales tax mistake, they see an opportunity to level the playing field—citing the word "uniformity" in the Idaho Constitution—by possibly de-funding the McCall-Donnelly and Blaine districts who "unfairly" have permanent levies.

They frame this as a voting rights issue: one of fairness and injustice to the property owner who "cannot vote" (yet who can vote for the school board trustees who set the budget). Their spirit of righteousness is coarsely reflected in the comments section of Idaho Mountain Express' online posting of last week's article on H197 by a citizen commenter named Stephanie: "I think it's me paying for your kids again and again! Pay for your own kids! It was your decision to have them, right?  Was I in the room that night? ... And then let's talk about property taxes and find out why I have to pay for renters and illegals' education. Make a baby, pay for your baby!" Nice. Civil. Who paid for your education?

For the first time, I testified at the H197 hearing before the Taxation and Revenue Committee of the Idaho House of Representatives last week. Before voting along party lines, majority Republicans cynically questioned speakers' trust of voters and their sense of fairness, while the three Democrats invoked practicality, local legal authority and fiscal responsibility.

While each committee member's vote clearly had been decided prior to this hearing, the tone was mostly civil. An outspoken exception to this was Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, who was impressively disrespectful of multiple speakers. Barrett chastised a McCall high school senior for referring to a Republic as a form of representative democracy (which it is) and for not using the word "constitution" in his answer. She reprimanded another speaker by using the adage, "If I wanted to know the price of tea in China, I'd ask."

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-Saint Maries, twisted a student's description of representative democracy and cited Ben Franklin in admonishing the student for "giving up his freedom (i.e., vote) for his security" (i.e., elected representative making budget decisions).

Civility does not just encompass the tone of voice we use when communicating; civility requires genuine curiosity about and consideration of another's opinion. Manipulative arguing is not civility—it is bullying. Fairness is not an object or an end. One cannot create fairness; one can only create the impression of fairness.

Let's be clear: H197 will have no impact on anyone in Idaho other than on the local citizens of four counties. It will not help the state budget. Some 300 teachers and support-staff jobs in Blaine County will now be at risk every two years. The School District is Blaine County's largest employer. St. Luke's brought my family here, but the schools sealed the deal. If a levy fails (53 percent of the schools' budget), every middle- and lower-class individual will be harmed by irreparable damage to our local economy. If we pass four levies in a row, we can return to the stability of permanent levies.

Legislators have an opportunity to correct the 2006 mistake of funding Idaho public schools by the volatile sales tax. Instead, they are guided by two emotions: the greed of large property owners who see a political opening and the spite of some members of the majority caucus directed at our high property values and well-funded school districts. Republicans in the hearing showed little class, little concern for our economies and little respect for our children.

Contempt and avarice are powerfully destructive human emotions; we should take care to point them out when they enter the room. Lastly, when citing our founding fathers, it's best to act like them—intelligent, curious and thoughtful—especially when addressing our children.

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