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Why I'm voting for the Revenue Purpose Statement

Depriving the school district of a revenue source doesn't help the kids or improve their educational experience.

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.

Chris Liebig blogs about local and national school issues at A Blog About School.  You can also follow him on Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Maria Houser Conzemius January 29, 2013 at 06:00 PM
Chris, you say "People want older schools to be upgraded and better maintained." The SILO money could take care of those upgrades and maintenance issues in older schools now. Why hasn't the district done that? The CFO said, "We have $33 million in upgrades and maintenance issues we need to address already." So why hasn't the district acted? Is the district incapable of acting, no matter how much money we give them? I don't trust this district or this board enough to give them a blank check. I don't even know whether the new physical plant director is qualified to hold his job. If the district were to work on older school buildings, would they do a good job? What's holding up the works? They have money from SILO already. Nope, no trust, no confidence. A vote of confidence in this board and this district would be a mistake based on past performance and dysfunction.
Stephen Schmidt January 29, 2013 at 06:15 PM
That money is also intended for the construction of the third high school (hanging out there in the distance) and beyond that isn't enough to cover the cost of the two new elementary schools that most believe are needed plus upgrading the current schools with things like air conditioning that many parents are begging for. If the school district doesn't pass RSP in February and dips into those funds to upgrade the air conditioning for example, it's going to become a big grudge match for remaining funding just like it was about to be before this idea came up. I don't know if passing RSP now is the answer, as I certainly understand the doubts many have expressed with the district and board. But not passing it will lead to more community strife and less options for the district to deal with its problems, which will then feed this perpetual cycle of arguing. But maybe that is unavoidable, especially if community members distrust each other so thoroughly that they can't approve this vote.
Chris Liebig January 29, 2013 at 11:56 PM
Maria – I come down the other way, but I can understand where you’re coming from. I’m curious: If the RPS is voted down and we have another vote in six or nine months, is there anything the district could do in the meantime that would change your mind?
Julie Eisele January 30, 2013 at 05:57 AM
(I am trying to respond to Stephen Schmidt, but I can't seem to get this to appear in the correct order on the comments page.) To Stephen Schmidt - you are forgetting the existing grudge from constituents who are dealing with neglected schools in their neighborhoods, while we save a golden pot of untouchable money -- millions socked away each year each year -- for a new high school. It is unusual for a school district to save money for a prized project while other, dire needs go ignored. (To me, that's like saving money for a new house while your existing house is deteriorating all around you.) There are needs for more seats in elementary schools on the east side, in addition to deferred maintenance issues in many existing schools. The previous board did us all a disservice by setting that money aside while other needs stacked up. This has led to a lot of ill will in the district. That said, I hope everyone wills support RPS so we can move forward.
Stephen Schmidt January 30, 2013 at 11:29 AM
@Julie Eisele You were doing it right, the comment stream reorders itself afterward so it looks like you're posting first instead of replying, but I agree this can temporarily be disorienting. I think I essentially agree with you, although the third high school issue and how much SILO was ever meant to be just for that is a long fought over one, as I'm sure you know. It seems as if several groups feel the district made them promises, not just with that original SILO vote, but in other cases as well (long before) and so the current angst with this board extends far beyond most of its actual members. My point was that if RSP fails, the school district will be left in the same quandary where it has people who want the third high school organizing themselves to protect funding they believe should go toward their desired new school, pitted against another group that believes there should be new elementary schools first, pitted against a third group that desperately wants things like air conditioning and other building equity considerations for those that don't have them. So basically not much different than it has been for the last year. Will the district spend the SILO money it does have to update buildings this summer if the RSP vote fails and give the RSP recertification a stab again in six months? Like Chris Liebig said below, I wonder what would change in that time to make that second vote more likely?
Mary Murphy January 30, 2013 at 05:01 PM
If the proposed revenue purpose statement fails, the school board could put forth a proposed revenue purpose statement in six months that more specifically tells voters what would be done with the funds. More specific language better describing what would be done with the money would help cure the lack of accountability problem present with the proposed revenue purpose statement. Future board members would also be bound by the language of the revenue purpose statement if were to be adopted.
Chris Liebig January 30, 2013 at 06:04 PM
Mary – That’s mostly true. The RPS could limit what the board could use the money for, though it couldn’t bind the board to actually do the projects, or to do them in any specific order. I can see why people might be afraid of what the board might *not* do with the money—that is, why they might want to be sure that certain projects are on the list. But I don’t see why a more specific RPS would reassure those people, since the RPS doesn’t require the district to actually do the projects; it just gives them the ability to. A broadly worded RPS enables all of those projects. So a more specific RPS would be useful only to people who want to ensure that certain projects are *excluded* from the list. For example, I suppose people could refuse to vote for the RPS if it allowed the board to use the money to build a new high school. I’m against that use of the RPS. I think those battles should be fought through the school board approval process—that’s why we elect a board. I think it makes sense to phrase the RPS itself as broadly as possible, then use the board process to decide exactly how the money will be spent. That’s why I see a long-term facilities plan as relatively meaningless, since it doesn’t (and, in my view, shouldn’t) bind future boards. This is especially true because the RPS affects revenues out to 2029—there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to change those priorities over time through the election of new boards.
Julie Eisele January 30, 2013 at 07:39 PM
Yes SS, all good points. I just hope RPS passes. I think there are MANY people who don't even know what the vote is about -- not everyone pays super close attention to school district issues. I am running into a fair number of people who don't know what the vote is about. Everyone who wants this to pass should be informing friends, neighbors and co-workers, and stop focusing on the negative issues of the past. (Just my opinion.)
Maria Houser Conzemius January 31, 2013 at 07:27 PM
Chris, Supt. Murley needs to come up with a comprehensive facilities plan so we KNOW what he's going to do with the money! The fact that he hasn't done that yet and is arrogant enough, as is the board, to ask for a blank check without a plan in place is a non-starter for a lot of us. He wants a blank check and THEN he'll come up with specifics of what he'll do with the money? That takes a lot of nerve. Furthermore, the Resolution Purpose Statements commits no one to anything. They could spend some of the money on more big, fat undeserved raises for central administrators for all I know. Plus the blank check doesn't commit future boards and administrators to anything, just as the SILO tax didn't commit anyone to anything and they still haven't spent the money. Also, Supt. Murley said that he's unwilling to provide air-conditioning to low-income schools like Twain, where students have fainted from 100-degree plus temperatures at 10:00 a.m. and had to be carried from the classroom to air-conditioned administrators' offices to be sprayed down and cooled down. That tells me everything I need to know about his intentions to distribute the money equitably. I can't believe y'all are willing to vote for a blank check to a dysfunctional board and greedy administrators. Is the new physical plant director, Duane Van Hemmert, any more qualified than Paul Schultz was? Will more money be misspent and wasted on projects that have to be torn down and done over?
Maria Houser Conzemius January 31, 2013 at 07:30 PM
Mary, I agree. The board and central administration's lack of accountability to produce plans, specifics, and results is a HUGE problem for the RPS vote. I have a "vote no on RPS 2/5/13" sign in my yard and so does my neighbor across the street. In fact, he offered me the sign.
Maria Houser Conzemius January 31, 2013 at 07:32 PM
Chris, if you're happy enough with the current school board's functioning and the central administration's lack of planning and specifics, then go ahead and vote them all a big blank check, but I need more accountability and specifics before I would think of giving this bunch a blank check. Don't mean to be rude, but that's just how I feel.
Chris Liebig January 31, 2013 at 11:40 PM
Maria – I agree that the RPS itself is no guarantee of anything. But I don’t understand how a long-term facilities plan is a guarantee or commitment of any kind, either. The district could change it two weeks later. More realistically, the plan could change when new board members come in at the end of this year, or two years after that, etc. So I don’t see why it would reassure anyone. I don’t see how you can possibly pass any RPS, ever, without giving the district a “blank check” (unless, again, you exclude specific projects from the language). That’s why I was wondering what the district could possibly do to get your vote. If you don’t trust them now, I don’t see why you’d trust them any more after they adopt a (non-binding) long-term facilities plan. Again, I see where you’re coming from. (I wrote a post defending RPS protest voters here: http://ablogaboutschool.blogspot.com/2013/01/in-defense-of-protest-vote.html) I just don’t think that, in this particular case, the schools (and the kids in them) will be better off if we express our (often reasonable) displeasure with the district by voting “no” on the RPS.

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