Sohn: Let's help Hamilton commissioners understand their schools tax vote

Sohn: Let's help Hamilton commissioners understand their schools tax vote

August 3rd, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Here's a school news quiz: What were the main talking points for a recently proposed (and then killed) 34-cent tax increase to boost the operating budget of our local school district for the first time in 14 years?

If you said upping teacher pay and increasing the number of teacher support positions — think counselors, reading coaches and teachers aides — you'd be right.

But five of the nine Hamilton County commissioners killed the tax increase by voting to drop the proposal from the county budget. The tax increase would have funded a 5% pay raise for teachers and added about 300 positions to help with Hamilton County's 43,000 students.

The clear message from the commission to the school superintendent and Board of Education was simply: Go back to the blackboard and bring us back a balanced budget that doesn't require a tax increase.

So, how can one explain why — when the school board did exactly that and came back with a budget that adds only about half those positions and, instead of a raise, gives teachers and full-time school employees a one-time, $1,500 bonus in November — commissioners complained and asked where was the teacher raise?

"When the initial budget came out people in my district were just up in arms about a huge tax increase and stuff. But almost every person I talked to, their reaction was the same," said District 1 Commissioner Randy Fairbanks. "But almost every single one of them would follow it up with saying, 'But I would be for a raise for the teachers.' Where did you get to a point that the part I was thinking was the most important part of the budget was cut first?"

Where they got to that point, Commissioner Fairbanks, was when you said no new taxes. You're an accountant, but what part of your "no" in no new money did you not understand — the "n" or the "o"?

Fairbanks wasn't alone. Many of the same commissioners who voted to excise the tax increase from the budget expressed concern about the lack of a county-funded pay raise in the district's new operating budget. What's more, they had the consummate gall to absolve themselves of responsibility in the matter since they do not have line-item veto power of the department's budget. They were "just the funding body," they said during a two-hour discussion Wednesday.

Gosh, aren't you glad they do seem to grasp at least one piece of this? They are the "funding body."

Still, as they discussed funding for Hamilton County schools, Brent Goldberg, chief business officer for the school district, patiently explained the school district's new plan, which was reached in consultation with the local teachers union. The teachers' representative — the Hamilton County Education Association — deemed that adding additional support staff for teachers was more important than the raise, said Goldberg and a union leader.

The teachers chose to "put themselves second again" and forgo raises to prioritize other budget matters "for the students," HCEA President Jeanette Omarkhail said.

School board members called it a "disconnect." We think that's too kind. Here's what we think explains the actions of our not-so-stalwart county commissioners.

More than 60 percent of Hamilton County voters supported the 34-cent tax increase, according to a professional poll. Teachers supported the tax increase. Parents supported the tax increase. The largest realty association in the county put out a statement supporting the tax increase. The Chamber of Commerce was on record supporting the tax increase. Both of the Times Free Press editorial pages supported the tax increase. And many of the county's senior property owners are and would be eligible for tax relief.

What's more, on the heels of the commission's kill-the-tax vote, a preliminary but very damning Hamilton County schools facility report became public. Consultants had found that school district has $1.36 billion in capital and maintenance needs — much of it deferred now for decades because of insufficient funding. And you remember who is "just the funding body."

We think the commissioners suddenly began thinking about their next re-election campaigns in a new way — one in which at least 3,000 local teachers and their spouses are likely to be very active and engaged voters. Add to that number, the parents of 43,000 students.

In the last Hamilton County general election in August 2018, fewer than 56,000 votes were cast in the countywide county mayor's race. District voter turnout was considerably smaller. Only 4,340 were cast in Fairbanks' race — and he was unopposed. In the other commission districts, with and without opposition, there were between about 3,000 and 7,600 votes cast in each district.

It would seem a few teacher and parent votes will go a long way in the 2022 general election. Perhaps five of our commissioners are —and should be — rethinking their positions.

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