Two weeks ago I wrote about the School’s Facilities Sales Tax proposal, which will be on the ballot in Effingham County on Tuesday, April 4. Like most columns about taxes, it was infuriating. Taxes make people mad, regardless of what kind they are, and, considering our history, perhaps these feelings are understandable. One might argue that this disdain for taxes is in our cultural DNA, going all the way back to the mid-18th century.
Not tall taxes are created equal, however, and controversial issues often lend themselves to misinformation. This column, then, will be devoted to hopefully clearing up some questions about the tax in general, as well as countering some arguments against it.
Question: How much is this thing going to cost?
Answer: That’s impossible to answer without knowing a person’s particular spending habits, but keep in mind that this is a one PENNY tax on each dollar spent for specific items. Groceries and medicine — the stuff we need to actually live — are not taxed. Farm equipment and cars are also not taxed. Dining out is taxed. Retail merchandise is taxed. Gasoline is taxed. For every dollar we put into our gas tanks, an extra penny will go to help keep local school buildings up-to-date. For every dollar we put into our wardrobes, one penny will go toward giving our students a competitive edge for their future.
Question: Why should we help pay for teacher and administrator salaries?
Answer: We’re not; at least not with this tax. The money generated cannot be spent on salaries or curriculum; it can only be spent on building-related costs. This covers a wide range of expenses, from electrical updates to roofing needs, from wheelchair accessibility to building security.
Question: Why are we being threatened with higher property taxes if the sales tax proposal fails?
Answer: It might be easier to answer this question with an analogy from the outdoors. If you are in a raft going down a river and there is a waterfall fifty yards downstream, the guy telling you about the waterfall is not threatening you with a waterfall. If you are floating down a river, you might get wet.
Thus, people who live in communities with public schools may see their property taxes increased on occasion to help keep those schools viable, particularly if that same community exists in a state as sorely governed as ours. That’s not a threat; that’s just geography.
I live in a house. I pay property taxes, and it would make me upset for those property taxes to increase. It would make me even more upset, though, to see my local school cram fifty kids into a classroom so it can stay open. The Schools Facility Sales Tax is partially designed to alleviate the need for an increase in property taxes.
Question: Aren’t we just financing poor stewardship? Why do these schools need so much upkeep in the first place?
Answer: Entropy. Everything in the universe, regardless of how well you maintain it, eventually needs to be replaced and/or updated. Teutopolis High School was built in 1929. Effingham Junior High School was built in 1939. These buildings are testimony to both the craftsmanship put into them originally and the dedication shown to them over the course of decades. To imagine that a school district has someone “allowed” these buildings to just “deteriorate” is both an exaggeration and a bit insulting to the generations of good stewards who have helped keep the doors open this deep into the 21st century.
Question: Won’t this tax drive away business?
Answer: That’s a stretch. Even if this sales tax passes, Effingham County will still have one of the lowest sales-tax rates in the region. The idea that someone will drive past Effingham as they travel along I-57 or I-70 so they can save some pocket change is unlikely.
Question: My kids are out of school. Why should I help pay for a school in which I have no vested interest?
Answer: This is a very good, reasonable question, and so I will try to answer it in a reasonable and thorough way. Pragmatically speaking, the stronger “your” schools are — and I use the possessive pronoun “your” to indicate any school — public, private, parochial — that exists within the same geographic region in which you live— the stronger your community will be.
Dynamic schools act as magnets for dynamic people, drawing them into your community, keeping them there from one year to the next, from generation to generation. Dynamic people work hard, they give generously, they create jobs, and they teach their children to do all those things, too. If that is the kind of community in which you want to live, then it stands to reason that you actually do have a vested interest in ALL of the schools in that community—all of them—from preschool to post-secondary opportunities.
In closing, it has always confused me why we, as a society, will claim to value our young people and make vague claims like, “the children are our future,” but then run for the pitchforks whenever someone talks about providing them with good schools.
What is it about financing knowledge, anyway, that gets us so worked up? I honestly don’t know, and I would honestly like a good answer.