A friend the other day called Columbia County School Board member Mike Sleeper “courageous” because he was the only trustee to vote against a 1-mill tax hike.
I disagree. Not because I disagree with Sleeper, but because these days voting against a tax increase is easy. Voting for a tax increase at the local level is just about the hardest thing an elected official can do.
Sleeper’s vote against the tax hike isn’t courageous. It’s safe. He could vote against the 1-mill increase secure in the knowledge that a majority would pass it. The system would get the funds to fill part of its $11.6 million budget deficit, and he could avoid being accused of raising taxes. It’s a twofer.
Now, what would have been courageous? Passing a 2-mill tax increase and using the money to bring back more teacher’s aides in lower grades.
That’s a strong idea that had been circulating behind the scenes from some unexpected sources. The suggestion never went public, much less on the floor for debate. But it certainly was intriguing – especially when we see signs that test scores are starting to slip as funding has dwindled.
Of course, no one wants to raise taxes. It’s odd that there are those who seem to think local elected officials in this conservative county somehow are eager to do so, or that they see it as the “easy way out.” Exactly the opposite is true, which is why the school board beat this thing to death before finally taking that 4-1 vote this past Tuesday.
But there is one facet of the tax-hike vote that shouldn’t go without comment: This is the second time in three years that the school board has voted to raise property taxes (and comes after tens of millions in state budget cuts during the past decade).
Remember what happened after that last tax hike? Local taxpayers were so incensed, so outraged, that they rose up and voted their school board members out of office, right?
• District 1 trustee Wayne Bridges didn’t run for re-election. When his wife became an assistant principal, a new state law kicked in that prevented him from serving on the school board. The tax hike wasn’t an issue in the election of his successor, David Dekle, who voted Tuesday for the tax increase.
• District 4 trustee Roxanne Whitaker easily defeated two opponents – neither of whom made an issue of her 2011 vote for the tax increase.
• Chairwoman Regina Buccafusco didn’t even draw a challenger andcoasted to re-election.
Come to think of it, with zero backlash for the last tax increase – in fact, with those voting for the tax hike easily winning – maybe it is “courageous” for Mike Sleeper to vote against the tax increase. Just not in the sense my friend intended.
After all, you could easily argue that local voters seem to indicate they like the idea of investing more money in their schools and don’t mind paying the equivalent of one family night of dining out to pay for it.
Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed reading and hearing the comments from people who insist the tax hike wasn’t a last resort, and that there were plenty of easy things the school board could have done to balance the budget without breaking a sweat.
Too bad none of those people brought their sharpened pencils to the handful of hearings the board held to discuss the budget – including the one Tuesday that ended early, with no new information on the table, and no one from the public there to offer any suggestions.
Perhaps those are the same folks who also don’t take the time to visit the voting booth. With that sort of civic engagement, I suppose just showing up should be considered courageous
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com, or call 706-868-1222, ext. 106. Follow at www.twitter.com/