In a referendum on February 5, voters in the Iowa City Community School District will choose whether to approve a “Revenue Purpose Statement” (RPS). I’ve been very critical of a lot of what our district is doing educationally, but I’m voting for the RPS, and here’s why.
First, some background. Revenue Purpose Statements are part of our state’s Byzantine school funding system. The upshot is: Every time you spend a dollar in our district, one penny of sales tax goes into a special fund. The school district has the option to spend that fund on building and infrastructure projects – but only if its voters have approved a Revenue Purpose Statement, to identify the purposes for which it can be spent. Our current RPS expires in 2017; if the voters don’t approve a new Statement before 2017, that money will go back to the taxpayers in the form of property tax relief.
So we have to decide whether we want the money to go to the school system or back to the taxpayers.
The RPS vote comes at a time when the district is facing an increasing clamor, from several constituencies, for new spending. People want older schools to be upgraded and better maintained. People want new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding. People in the north corridor want a high school of their own. And so on.
Without an RPS, the district could pursue those projects only by issuing general bonds, each of which would have to be approved by 60% of the voters in a referendum. If the RPS passes, the school board can fund at least some of those projects by borrowing against future sales tax revenues, and could do so by a majority vote of the board, without holding a public referendum.
Critics of the proposed RPS have argued that the district has not been specific enough about what it will do with the money. The RPS itself is very general, barely constraining the district’s use of the money at all. And the district put the RPS on the ballot while still very early in the process of identifying its needs. With the vote looming, the district has hurriedly tried to articulate more specific plans, but some people are still unsatisfied. Others are concerned about giving the board the ability to make big decisions about facilities without submitting them to a public vote. Some feel that they cannot trust the district to handle its revenues properly or to follow through on its commitments. Still others see the vote as an opportunity to protest the district’s new diversity policy.
It’s true that the district could have handled the RPS vote better than it did. It should have scheduled the vote for later in the year, when its review of its building needs would be further along. It has also insisted on presenting the issue as one of “local control,” which is pure spin. Although it’s true that if the RPS passes, the district could still choose to use the money for tax relief, we all know it won’t. The district seems to think that anything with the word “tax” in it will automatically be unpopular, so it’s been at pains to argue that the RPS will require “no new taxes” and “will NOT raise your property taxes.” But despite the district’s protests, the RPS is effectively a tax. Though it technically doesn’t “raise the tax rate,” voting it down would result in tax relief. To say (as the district does) that the RPS would have “zero effect on the amount of property taxes paid” is simply disingenuous.
But none of that means you should vote against the RPS. Sure, if your main priority is lowering taxes and shrinking government—even to the point of cutting back on investment in public education—then it makes sense to vote it down. But if you are generally supportive of more funding for public education, it makes no sense to vote against the RPS just because you’re not sure exactly how the money will be spent, or because you are unhappy with some of the district’s policies.
First of all, you never know in advance exactly how your taxes will be spent. That doesn’t mean you should oppose all taxation. Moreover, even if the school board were to pass a detailed long-term facilities plan tomorrow, it can’t bind future boards to follow through on that plan. There will never be an RPS that commits the school board to pursue specific projects in a specific order; the most it can do is give the board the option to authorize such projects. You have to either forgo the money entirely, or live with some uncertainty about how it will be spent.
Second, if you hunt around long enough, you will always find a reason to oppose a particular tax. It won’t go to buy exactly what you want, or it won’t be spent with perfect efficiency, or you’re afraid it might fund someone else’s projects instead of yours, and so on. But that’s just an argument against any taxes whatsoever, and a recipe for preventing all social spending. The real question is whether you think the benefit of these additional revenues is likely to outweigh the benefit of some tax relief—even if the revenue won’t be spent only on the projects you most want, or even if it ends up benefiting someone else’s kids instead of yours.
Finally, voting for the RPS doesn’t deprive you of your right to contest how the money should be spent. The RPS itself doesn’t approve any specific projects. The school board will have to consider and approve any individual project separately, and if the board members are out of touch with what the community wants, we can always vote them out. This is exactly how we treat other tax and spending issues, at the city, state, and federal level. In my view, it makes more sense to allow the school board to decide these issues—why bother electing them?—than to conduct a new (and costly) referendum every time we want to build or renovate a school.
I have a lot of sympathy with the people who want to express dissatisfaction with the district by voting against the RPS. I wish the district would put less effort into teaching kids to be obedient little worker bees who score high on standardized tests, and more into getting them to think for themselves and preparing them to be active participants in a democracy. I also wish it would worry more about making school a humane, engaging place than about squeezing every last instructional minute out of the day to satisfy the one-size-fits-all demands of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core. (It could start by giving elementary schoolers more than fifteen measly minutes to eat lunch.) I could go on. But should I refuse to vote for the RPS until the district addresses my concerns?
I’ve concluded that the answer is no. I have a lot of disagreements with the district, but voting against the RPS for those reasons would just be taking those disagreements out on the kids. Depriving the district of a revenue source doesn’t help the kids or improve their educational experience. That’s why I’m voting Yes on February 5.