THE ISSUE: Elected officials in Decatur and the state are scrambling to take tax dollars from schools and use them for day-to-day operations. In both cases, it is a mistake.
In 1980, the Decatur City Council, in a 4-1 vote, passed a 1-cent sales tax. Unlike another penny added in 2001, the 1980 tax increase stirred little public complaint. The public largely was agreeable to paying the tax because it was going to Decatur City Schools. In good economic times and bad, the City Council has for 34 years provided 100 percent of the proceeds from the 1980 tax to DCS.
As the city prepares for fiscal 2016, Mayor Don Kyle has his eye on the penny tax. He proposed giving DCS the same dollar amount as in fiscal 2015 — about $9 million — and retaining any growth in tax revenue for the general fund. Because Decatur’s economy is growing at a slow rate, he points out that this change would have minimal impact on DCS revenue in fiscal 2016.
Yet the cap also would have minimal impact on the general fund in the coming year. So why do it at all?
The answer is obvious. Once city officials break the expectation that 100 percent of the penny will go to DCS, they can begin treating contributions to the schools the same way they treat expenditures for Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, or any department. In lean times, they could reduce the contribution to DCS. If they really want another amphitheater or to renovate another train depot, they can take the money from DCS. If the economy actually begins growing, DCS will not share in the benefit.
The mayor correctly points out the City Council in 1980 did not pass a resolution designating the tax exclusively to education. There is no legal impediment to the current council giving less than 100 percent of the tax proceeds to DCS; it is not legally required to give the schools anything.
That the city can legally reduce the educational opportunities of Decatur children, however, does not make it a good idea.
Former City Councilman Max Patterson, who cast one of the four votes in favor of the 1980 tax, was blunt in expressing his frustration that the current council appears poised to end the 34-year practice of giving all of the penny to DCS.
“That penny was established for the schools and should continue for the schools,” Patterson said. “If they don’t give the whole penny to the schools this year, I worry that this council and future councils will keep whittling away at it.”
The timing of the mayor’s effort could hardly be worse. DCS recently issued bonds for the construction of two buildings to replace the deteriorating Austin and Decatur high schools, and it will need any revenue it can get to finance operations while handling debt service.
Moreover, the Legislature has been engaged in a relentless attack on public schools, draining money from the Education Trust Fund for non-educational purposes and to finance private schools and charter schools. The ongoing special session could be even worse, as many legislators have their eyes on education funds as a way to plug holes in the General Fund budget.
When lawmakers take money from the Education Trust Fund, they reduce DCS funding.
Both the city and the state are looking greedily at education funds as a way to pay day-to-day expenses. But in both cases, current economic problems are in large part a function of high poverty rates.
The most effective way to combat poverty is through education. Officials in Decatur and the Statehouse should be looking for ways to improve education and buttress long-term economic growth, not raiding education funds to solve short-term financial problems.
(Published Aug. 6, 2015)