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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010 7 years ago

MY VIEW: Why school accountability fails

by: Rod Thomson

The cuts in the Sarasota County School District’s funding from the state and predictable tax hike by the School Board and school administration are the symptoms of a broad systemic breakdown in Florida education funding.

The breakdown has nothing to do with a lack of money. Plenty of money is spent per student — in the neighborhood of $17,000 per student per year in Sarasota County. If money were the answer, we would have no more questions in education.

No. The problem is the disconnect between the tax-levying body and the tax-spending body. They should be the same group of people, and they are not.

The School Board approved a 6% tax rate hike two weeks ago. It also chose to take $12 million more out of its rainy-day fund, a quarter of which will go to pay for employee pay raises. Profligacy in obeisance to the teachers union remains solid.

With declining property values, many people will not see a raw tax increase. But the shift to a higher rate in times of belt-tightening highlights the disconnect.

It is still not well-known that the Legislature sets the property tax rate for each county, even though it is a local tax. A School Board can levy less than that — stop laughing, miracles happen — but it cannot levy more. The state also offers grants and other funding, but with strings attached to how it can be used. And, at times, it hands down mandates that school districts must carry out but does not provide any extra money.

The School Board then officially approves the tax rate up to the cap the Legislature has set — almost always the max. The district applies the funds to its programs and at that point, the finger-pointing commences.

Invariably, any time there are financial difficulties, local school officials blame the Legislature for not adequately funding programs or for handing down unfunded mandates that dilute existing resources.

However, legislators usually counter that they are providing more money per child than ever and that the School Board is not responsibly spending it. Representatives from the two elected bodies point the finger of blame at each other and the disconnect is complete.

Sometimes it appears that both School Board members and legislators quietly like it this way. With the confusion and disconnect, they avoid accountability.

I’m not aware of any moves to try to solve the disconnect, a solution that is simple. Reconnect accountability.

If schools are a local responsibility, and few say they are not, then the taxing and spending should come from the School Board. If Sarasota board members want to double the tax for better schools, let them do it and face voters with the results.

Why should a vote-trading consortium of politicians from Panama City to Miami be setting the local school property tax rate for Sarasota?

The obvious answer? They shouldn’t.

+ Racist to the bottom
I have a theory on this whole race card in politics brouhaha that blows up every … constantly. The latest is the now well-proven vacuous charge that the Tea Party members are racists, recently trotted out by an increasingly irrelevant NAACP.

There is only one reason the race card works so well in our politics: We are a virulently anti-racist country.

Otherwise, it would have no force. If we were all racist as some suppose, then clearly there would be no political advantage to claiming that your opponent is a racist. It is done because it works. Not only are we largely not racists, but most of us are terrified at the idea that someone might even think we are racist.

The evidence that we are a post-racist nation — even if many politicians particularly in the Democrat Party are not post-racist politicians — is that the race card plays so flamingly well.

The political success of the charge is the evidence against the veracity of it.

The problem is that it probably won’t lose its potency eventually. If these politicians cannot get beyond its use — and there is no evidence they can — then what could happen is that resentment begins to build up among the majority and a spark of racism might be re-fired.

Whether that matters to do-anything-to-stay-in-power politicians, who may view such a turn as more opportunity for personal gain, is a sad but legitimate question.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].

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