Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Could anti-tax sentiment in Lafayette deal a blow to our already dilapidated school facilities? You betcha! By Walter Pierce

[Editor's Note: The print version of this column indicates the Citizens' Oversight Committee recommended two new property taxes for the school board to pursue. The COC is only recommending the board place a single tax proposal for the Facilities Master Plan before voters. This column has been adjusted to reflect that correction.]

Get ready for the tea to come to a boil, and it could be Lafayette’s public school children who get scalded.

It’s no secret that our public school buildings are in piss-poor condition. Most need repairs, some of them major, and several need to be razed and replaced. That costs money, and money for public schools is generated through taxes.

The school board recently adopted the Facilities Master Plan put together by a Baton Rouge planning firm. It’s a comprehensive plan that addresses the many infrastructure deficiencies in our public schools. (I emphasize the possessive adjective because these buildings belong to us, the taxpayers, and we’re ultimately responsible for their upkeep.) The price tag for the fix is just over $1 billion, although the board’s strategy is apparently to go to voters and ask for it in two installments.

Yet, while embracing the plan, the board has yet to set a vote on putting a new property tax — assuming this is the preferred route as opposed to a sales tax — on a ballot, and with good reason: I can’t imagine a worse time to ask voters to approve a new tax, with TEA party sentiment, often knee-jerk at that, ascendent.

But just last week the school system’s Citizens’ Oversight Committee, which is exactly what it sounds like, recommended the board move forward with a new property tax proposal to fund the master plan.

This is at once a critical time and the worst possible time for such discussion.

At the end of this month, on the Saturday of Festival International — which won’t help turnout — Lafayette Parish voters will be asked to renew an existing 5-mill property tax that generates $8.1 million annually. This is a renewal, not a new tax. But could the distinction not matter to the anti-tax zealots? Could it be confused for a new tax by the less informed?

It could be disastrous for our school system if the renewal fails, yet that possibility seems better than remote.

A week and a half ago, voters in the Jefferson Parish city of Kenner in suburban New Orleans shot down six property tax propositions, three of which were renewals. One of those renewals funded the bulk of the Kenner Fire Department’s operations budget. Even public safety, it seems, is not immune to the zeitgeist.

I posted a blog last week at about the COC’s tax recommendation. The reaction in the comment section was swift and overwhelmingly negative.

“Anyone in government even thinking about raising any taxes or any fees needs to resign immediately. Period!” wrote one reader. “Warm up the tar and pluck the feathers,” chimed another.

It doesn’t help that until recently the school board routinely used the maintenance budget as a de facto rainy day fund, raiding it to bankroll other prerogatives like across-the-board lower student-teacher ratios in the mid 1990s. That’s what got us into this pickle; the misuse of maintenance funds for non-maintenance needs now manifests itself in peeling paint, leaking roofs and a proliferation of “butler” buildings cluttering our campuses.

But if we head to the polls April 30 and punish the school board for the screw ups of past boards by electing not to renew an existing tax, we’re really taking it out on our children and condemning them to an ever-worse learning environment.

Renew the tax on April 30. We can squabble about new taxes later.

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