Friday, March 06, 2009

Rebuilding our schools: the legacy of "no new taxes"

We are cross posting this for a Tacoma activist that is working hard for our schools.
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I am deep in the throes of campaigning for a local school bond election. Every year or two our school district has to undertake this ritual, the legacy of a state constitutional amendment that limited property taxes to 1% of assessed value, unless voters approve a bond levy by a 60% majority. "So what?" You say. "Shouldn't the voters have a say?" Well, yes, in theory, but in practice it means that necessary school construction projects are put off until our schools are literally crumbling around the kids. It also means that in times like these, when construction prices are low and construction jobs are desperately needed, voters balk at the idea of any additional property taxes.

But all of that is just talk. It is easy enough to say "fine, but not now" to school construction until you see the reality of what some of our kids are asked to live with every day.

This is a hallway ceiling at Hunt Middle School in Tacoma, Washington. Large parts of the school feature water damage just as severe. Maintenance staff dutifully replace ceiling panels and repaint when they can, but the water just seeps right through.

This is the roof that produced those leaks. When Hunt Middle School was built in 1957, I don't think school officials ever envisioned the days of sky high materials costs and 1% property tax caps. Faced with a booming student population, contractors used "imaginative" measures to cut costs, including a plywood based structure and a "California style" flat roof. 30 years of Northwest weather and no roof replacement funds have created the mold-laden environment its students have to learn in today.

Today, Hunt's problems extend far beyond the roof, and school officials must ask voters to approve enough funds for complete building replacement.

Across town at Stewart Middle School, a stately 1920s vintage building is a pleasant site to the casual observer. Inside, wires are strung along bare pipes, and students attend after school programs in rooms with missing ceiling tiles and severe water damage. (Caused by an electrical fire 2 years ago.)

School districts face this problem throughout the State of Washington. Other states have also jumped on the tax cap bandwagon, creating massive system-wide disasters like the classroom trailer-ridden California schools. 30+ years after most of these laws were passed, school bond elections have become an annual tradition in many parts of the country.

For the parents, teachers and school officials working on the school bond election, Tacoma's school building crisis seems obvious and urgent. Getting that message out to voters has been a nearly insurmountable task, however. School bond elections can't be funded by the district, and our total budget for promoting this 300 million dollar bond issue is about $20,000. (And much of that not materializing.) With the local press concentrating on the cost, our campaign strategy has come down to parent volunteers forwarding emails of school photos, late into the night.

Our complex system of school funding is a nightmare for school bond campaigns. Given the task of voting "yes" or "no" on the school bond, voters take this as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with virtually any school-related issue, from the amount of school supplies teachers use, to larger more important issues like the state's persistent achievement gap. Their concerns can and should be addressed, but getting the message across that school bonds are only for buildings has been very challenging. The only state to expressly guarantee ample funding for basic education in its constitution, the State of Washington is charged with funding educational programming needs like teachers, textbooks, and curriculum. In the absence of a state income tax, that funding is rarely secure.

Tacoma's school funding mess is not unique. Schools like Hunt and Stewart are a vivid illustration of the long-term consequences of tax caps, cost cutting, and the general nearsightedness of the past several decades of education funding. In Washington State we're working hard to change this myopic legacy, but a little more help from the federal government wouldn't hurt. As the Obama administration considers new education initiatives and asks the American public to accept the stimulus plan, please think of Hunt Middle School, and ask your legislators to vote yes for change.

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Please visit Tacoma Citizens for Schools on their website and on Facebook.