Schools and (Property) Taxes — Misdirection, Wrong Direction

conjurerAs the state budget was being finalized we heard a lot from the Governor and legislative power players about how they had not raised taxes significantly (and here).  That talk was meant to direct attention away from the the very significant increases in property taxes that the state budget required from school districts who needed to honor contracts and preserve as much in the way of educational quality as possible while dealing with the biggest gap in recent memory between revenues allowed and/or  provided by the state and educational costs.

This misdirection has bled into outright falsehoods when the Governor has asserted that ARRA stimulus money will provide sicgnificant property tax relief (see here also).

I don’t like this misdirection and I really don’t like that the shift to property taxes is the wrong way to go with school funding.  Governor Jim Doyle knew this in 2005 when he issued a column titled “Freeze Property Taxes, Not Education.”  Both the budget he signed and his recent proposals that would allow districts to raise property taxes if they jump through a series of hoops indicate that he has lost this knowledge.  See here for a position paper from the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and here for a plan from the School Finance Network that would adequately fund education and provide property tax relief.   Maybe someone from the Governor’s office could take a look and refresh his memory.

A recent editorial from the Oshkosh Northwestern asserting that “Property tax bills will define Doyle’s legacy” indicates that the misdirection didn’t work.  I hope not, I hope that when the bills come due the anger is directed at state officials and not the struggling local school districts.

School property tax levies will not be finalized until October and the bills won’t hit taxpayers until December, but the size of these property tax increases is starting to become clear as districts around the state consider how they will balance the books.

Racine is considering a 12.08% , mil rate increase.  At a community meeting on the proposal the message was that raising property taxes isn’t good, but it is better than more cuts to education:

Speakers favored raising taxes over cutting district staff or programming, which they said would harm children’s education and subsequently harm the local economy and the future.

“We can’t expect our children to be productive and informed citizens if we don’t adequately invest in their success,” said Jennifer Levie, 39, of Racine, a Unified parent and educator. “It’s unacceptable that we would have to make additional cuts to other critically needed programs.”

Taxpayers seemed to feel this way despite the recession and Racine’s high unemployment rate.

“I feel the crunch sometimes when our taxes are raised but I know it is worth it,” said Maria Morales, a Racine Unified grandmother, senior citizen and city taxpayer who supports a tax rate increase. Morales was one of 13 people who spoke at the budget hearing, attended by about 50 community members.

At the local level the choices are tough because at the state level our elected officials refused to make the tough choice to revamp Wisconsin’s revenue system.

Things mostly are in place for for very bad school budget choices in 2009-10 and 2010-11 (a “Cents for Schools” sales tax could provide some emergency relief as well as the basis for longer term school funding improvements).  If we want to stop this trend from extending further, the time to act is now.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Budget, education, finance, Local News, School Finance, Take Action

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