Fixing Our Local Schools

This article talks about how to fix our schools. The current system, which results in unnecessarily extravagant school buildings but a shortage of school supplies, is ludicrous and needs serious restructuring. Competition should be introduced in the form of more charter schools and educational tax credits, and Commissioners and citizens should think twice before issuing bonds to pay for more schools.

Educating our young people is perhaps the most important role we as a society have. So, our government tells us, we need to be taxed in order to build the schools that we need because the issue is far too important for the government not to be involved. The trend these past years has been to have bond referenda passed in order to allocate money to the building of new schools, such as North Lincoln High School, and for repairs to existing school structures that have been allowed to decay. But even after all that, it seems as if you can hardly go to a Board of Commissioners meeting without having to sit through several representatives of Lincoln County Schools begging for even more money.

To take one example, North Lincoln High School is truly an impressive structure. Walking in to the multi-story foyer with fancy tiled walls is truly a sight. It has a high-tech 600-seat auditorium, amphitheater, two gymnasiums, and classrooms “wired for the 21st Century.” (I’m a computer professional with over 20 years of experience with computers, over 15 years of experience with the Internet and networks, and 10 years of experience working with the World Wide Web, I’ve worked with network protocols at their basic levels, and I’ve worked with both the physical and logical structure of networks, and I still have no idea what that last part means.) And yet, after we spend truckloads of money to build these fancy schools, somehow when the classes open they always seem to end up short on supplies. Businesses and citizens rally together to donate school supplies to try and help there to be enough to go around. Teachers dip into their own pockets. Students have to share textbooks.

If you look at the local charter schools, you will see a lot more sense in the way things are done. The buildings, while sufficient for their needs, are much more modest, but I’ve never heard of students in the charter schools having to do without supplies. I’ve been to the Denver campus several times, even while classes were in session. There are enough books, there are enough supplies, there are enough computers in the computer lab for a full class, and while I don’t know if it’s “wired for the 21st Century” it seems to have a sufficient amount of network connectivity for any activity I’ve ever seen. And they seem to be able to do it all with the same per-student allotment the government schools receive.

If you ask any teacher if he’d rather teach in a fancy school building and be short on supplies, or teach in a trailer with plenty of supplies, I guarantee you he will choose the trailer. So why is it our government is spending so much on school buildings and comparatively little on supplies? The answer is in the way that our government is structured. To build schools, the government places a bond referendum on the ballot to get approval from the voters. Here is the referendum voters were asked to consider on May 5:

Shall the order adopted on March 1, 2004, authorizing not exceeding $47,000,000 School Bonds of the County of Lincoln, North Carolina, for the purpose of providing funds, together with any other available funds, for erecting additional school buildings and other school facilities, remodeling, enlarging and reconstructing existing school buildings and other school facilities, providing necessary utilities and acquiring necessary land and equipment therefore in order to provide additional school facilities in the County of Lincoln, and authorizing the levy of taxes in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and the interest on said bonds, be approved?

Notice anything in there about school supplies? No, because money for school supplies doesn’t come out of the bond money; it comes out of the general budget. The bond referendum specifies exactly what the money may be spent on—and it can’t be spent on anything else. Also, only $6 million is allocated for repairs to existing structures; the other $41 million must be spent on new schools and expansion of existing schools. Suppose they only use $39 million for this? I imagine you could get a lot of supplies with $2 million. But they wouldn’t be allowed to do that. They have to spend it on the new structures or to improve existing structures. So the new structures will be these lavish monuments that represent money that could easily be spent elsewhere.

The thing that always surprises me is the cavalier attitude some people seem to have to this kind of spending. They act as if this money just comes from somewhere, maybe lying around in a vault in Raleigh or something, and it’s great to be able to use it on our local schools. That isn’t the way it works at all. This is a bond referendum. Bonds are a particular kind of investment; a certain number of bonds totaling the amount that needs to be raised are issued, and investors purchase the bonds. That’s where the money comes from. These investors need to be paid back. Unlike stocks, bonds reach maturity at a certain time whereupon the money must be paid back to the bondholder with interest. In this case, $47 million in General Obligation (GO) Bonds would be purchased. We don’t actually know the terms of those bonds yet (and we won’t until they’re actually issued), but the County Manager estimates that they will be purchased at 5% for a term of 20 years. According to this estimate, the bonds will end up costing the taxpayers a total of about $80 million, which will double the current debt! For comparison, the entire annual budget for Lincoln County is only about $60 million!

Where is that money going to come from? That’s right: people like you and me and our children are going to be taxed that amount in order to pay back the bondholders. This burden comes directly on us as we get older, and we also push it on our children. According to the minutes from the 3/1/04 Commissioners meeting where this referendum was approved, “If said bonds are issued, taxes in an amount sufficient to pay the principal and interest thereof will be levied upon all taxable property in the County of Lincoln.” According to the estimates, Lincoln County taxpayers will have to pay out an extra $3.5 million per year until 2025! And according to Steve Zickefoose, as reported in the Lincoln Times-News on 4/28/04, “that money will take care of the big stuff today and then we can pursue to add money later.” That means there’s even more taxes to come!

It’s a ridiculous setup, but it didn’t just happen this way. There’s a perfectly good reason why the government would rather build fancy school buildings than have enough supplies: people visiting the county see the buildings, they walk inside and see the offices, but they rarely see actual classes in session. So it’s a show, letting everyone know how wonderful our schools are while students are forced to do without. This is politics at its worst. But what you need to understand is that this isn’t the result of villains who twirl their moustaches; it’s the result of decent, well-meaning people, in and out of our government, who just don’t understand the dangers of getting the government involved in our lives.

But it affects everyone. According to the John Locke Foundation, 80% of over 400 North Carolina business leaders surveyed say that the government schools give them a “fair” to “poor” rate of return, and 73% said the rate of progress in North Carolina’s public schools is “too slow.” They overwhelmingly support magnet schools, charter schools, and tuition tax relief as steps to take for improvement. They also cited the lack of skilled workers and an inadequate education system as significant factors that impede economic growth in the state. Our government school system is broken, so something must be done other than building even more monuments to failed government education.

We need more charter schools. We need to bring in private schools to the county and give educational tax credits to any Lincoln County resident or business who pays for the tuition of a Lincoln County child. And we need to lobby the state legislature to let counties use their state money for school choice initiatives. According to Reason Magazine’s John M. Hood, similar school choice measures in Harlem increased the number of children reading at their grade level from 15% to 64%. We also need to try and reform the system that wastes millions of taxpayer dollars on unnecessarily extravagant structures so we can have more money for school supplies, textbooks, and other necessities. As a Libertarian, I am the only candidate for County Commissioner dedicated to making these tough choices for the good of our children. And the Libertarian Party is the only political party dedicated to ending the government’s failed intrusions into our schools.

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