05/03/07 — Bill suggests allowing schools to tax

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Bill suggests allowing schools to tax

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 3, 2007 1:45 PM

If the feelings of Wayne County's legislators are any indication, school boards across the state are not likely to receive permission to levy their own property taxes, but it's still an issue that commissioners and board of education members are watching closely.

"Our (state) school board association has come out in favor of this," Wayne County Board of Education member Pete Gurley said. "Many of the counties across the state are in favor of this."

He explained that such a proposal is tempting to him because of the difficulty the board has had in securing funding from the county commissioners for new school construction.

"My opinion is that with the circumstances we're now under, we'd be better off to be our own funding agency, rather than relying on others for our money," Gurley said. "And I think more and more school boards are experiencing similar situations to what we are, and there's always strength in numbers."

State Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, however, said that he feels the current system of the school board getting its local funding from the board of commissioners is working fine.

"As long as I can remember I don't believe the school boards have had the authority to raise their own revenue stream, and I don't see any compelling reason for changing that," the former Mount Olive mayor said.

It would be better, he continued, for the two boards to work out their funding differences rather than levying new taxes.

"They need to work closely together to understand that there are many needs, but also limits, and that priorities need to be established," Pate said. "They've got to bear in mind the taxpayers, and if both had taxing authority, I think taxes would be too high."

The ability of any school board to raise its own taxes, though, would rest at least partly in the hands of the county board of commissioners, which must also give its approval.

"I don't think the board would approve of that," Wayne County Commissioner Andy Anderson said. "The problem we have, if you start giving taxing authority to everybody, pretty soon you have an out-of-control situation. If you have the need for a new jail one year and the need for a new school one year, that's two big projects on top of each other.

"You lose control of what you're doing. It needs to be left to one agency to monitor the whole thing. I think the individual taxpayers would be the ones who suffer."

And besides, commissioner Efton Sager said, "We're trying to work with the school system. Like every other agency, they probably won't get everything they want, but I think we'll come to an agreement with them."

State Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, who served two years as a county commissioner, also voiced his opposition.

"(Taxation) is the job of the county commissioners. It's covered, and if they're not providing the appropriate amount of money, there's an arbitration process," he said.

Even former educator, Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said he didn't think allowing school boards that kind of leeway was a good idea.

"School boards might think they want it, but the difference between just asking for the money and actually having to go and get it, is that then you have to take the blame (for the taxes)," he said. "I think somewhere down the line that upsets the checks and balances.

"I think it works fine the way it is right now. They're representing the same people, so I think it's better for them to have to sit down and work over this together."

Still, school board member George Moye noted, if the board had had the ability to levy its own taxes, it's likely the schools could have already begun work on facility needs.

"I think it's fair to say more boards would be inclined to do things as they're needed instead of letting it pile up. We wouldn't be looking at $105 million right now. I think we'd be looking at a much smaller figure because we'd have done what needed to be done," he said.

And, fellow board member Rick Pridgen added, it's already a common practice in other states.

"I think it would be something our board would seriously consider voting for because so many of the school systems across the country have taxing authority, and I don't think we'd be going through half of the hoops and hurdles we are right now with the county commissioners," he said. "We're elected as public officials over the schools, and yet we always have to report to another entity that doesn't have the in-depth knowledge that we have about the schools to get our funding.

"It would make a whole lot more sense if we had more authority over our funding."