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November 23, 1993

Tyranny of the Few

by Dr. Doug Magann

[Editor's note: The series on the Mobile County Public School System written by former school superintendent Dr. Doug Magann concludes with his prescriptions for the ills of the school system.]

School districts in Alabama are caught in a fiscal never-never land: they are neither really fiscally dependent nor independent. That is, local elected school boards cannot levy taxes for schools but neither are they entitled to receive part of their funding from other tax levying authorities in the counties, e.g., City Councils, County Commissions, etc. But they are recipients of various "dedicated" revenues which are derived, primarily, from property taxes. Such school tax levies must be voted on by the people, as is the case in much of the mid-west and northeast.

However, in Alabama, school boards cannot call for the tax referenda! In order to have one, permission must first be attained from the local legislative delegation and a local bill must be passed by the Legislature permitting the referendum to be held. The "rules" for passing a local bill, at least in Mobile County, are extraordinary. Any 3 of 10 State Representatives, or any 1 of 4 State Senators, can block a local bill. And they frequently do.

No one knows where the rule came from, but it is very effective. The existence of the rule means that, theoretically, as few as 16 percent of the electorate can stop any local legislation, i.e., if 10 Representatives represent 10 percent of the population each, and were elected on close margins, any three could really represent 5 percent each when they vote to stop a bill. It happens.

The members of the delegation, a few of whom are actually members of the ruling class while some others are pawns, frequently block bills which would do nothing more than allow the people to vote on a school tax increase! In other words, the majority of the people and their children (and grandchildren) are being held hostage with the help of a carefully contrived rule.

Some argue that the rule is a result of single member districting, and that it was designed to protect the black and white communities from each others' shenanigans with local legislation. There may be some logic to this. The problem is that the schools are caught up in it.

One would think that the School Board would be taking whatever actions needed to attain reasonably adequate and equitable funding for the schools (including, but not limited to, educating the general public about how things really work and how to change the rules). One would also think that the Teacher Union might be involved in such an endeavor, but both have been acculturated into the beggar mentality.

No one wants to offend the rulers. Never mind that the people cannot help themselves or that, given the existing rules, the Legislators are the only ones in a position to help the children. If they become offended, there will be retribution. This is the plantation, and such retribution could, and probably would, affect certain offending individuals personally.

The Legislative rulers rationalize their inaction by blaming the victims. Whenever voices are lifted to urge reform, the response is always: "It can't be that complicated. Better management would produce what you think you need. If not, get some volunteer help before you ask for more funding." In other words, "fix it and then we will consider providing more money."

And this coming from the political "leaders" of a community that, in 1991-92, spent an average of $3,000 per student for operations (exclusive of the food service program), and in which 12 percent of the student population was in Special Education! The national average per pupil expenditure was $5,500. Hell, the people of Mobile should indict their "leaders" for child abuse instead of hosting ring kissing ceremonies for them.

Some of the more elite members of the Mobile business community frequently volunteered their employees to "help the schools solve their problems." Anything to avoid adequately funding the schools and letting the teachers do their jobs. But the well-meaning, ambitious, upwardly mobile young volunteers were like the blind men describing the elephant. Each described that part he/she was in contact with at the time. One, the tail of the elephant. One, the trunk. Another, the side. Still another, the hoof. No one ever understood the magnitude and complexity of the institution or its problems and, when they came together, they convinced themselves (and reinforced the predispositions of their employers) that simple minor changes would make everything just fine. Perhaps no one wanted to understand. Afterall, the public schools are for those "other" children.

My greatest frustration (and failure) during my 14 months in Mobile was that I could never get past the "it can't be that complicated" mentality of the ruling influentials. They simply refused to acknowledge the simple facts of the situation. I shall always wonder if this was due to honest ignorance, their simple arrogance, a psychotic denial similar to that of an alcoholic, or a deliberate conspiracy to keep "those people" in their assigned places and maintain the caste system of the plantation.

After the white majority of the Board voted to suspend me on October 5th, one of the staff reminded me of Machiavelli's warning 400 years earlier: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

I admit that there are days when I suspect that I have succumbed to paranoia. After 12 years of listening to people in high places berate the institution I love and believe in, after having them espouse a litany of "failures" that I know are not true, after hearing facts twisted and used to convince victims that they are the problem, I am a bit cynical and, quite possibly, paranoid. So I am more than a little self-conscious about suggesting that there might be a conspiracy to deny educational opportunities to certain classes of children. And I won't. At least not formally.

But what if there were a conspiracy to destroy the institution or, at least, make it impotent? What if some of our neighbors and fellow church members really believe that it is OK to sacrifice, not their children, but yours and mine? What if they were to admit that they are willing to accept 40 percent of the population living in near squalor - so long as they remain out of sight in urban and rural ghettos? What if these people really are different from us in a fundamental way? What would we accept as evidence that such a theory had substance? And if there were evidence, would we become angry enough to demand that the rules be changed? Or would we set by and allow our children's futures to be circumscribed by such people? I wonder.

What should we call the invocation of politeness, gentility, and civility as weapons to obscure the truth and effectively preclude the victims from influencing their destinies or those of their children? When people have been taught to accept the premise that open confrontation with authority figures is "rude" and to be avoided at all cost, regardless of the circumstances or how they are being treated, it is more than sufficient to establish bondage to those that make the rules. And how should we describe those in the community who see these things, recognize them for what they are, and turn away in self-serving complacency?

Shortly after the settlement with the Board, one of my professional colleagues approached me at a national convention and scolded me for settling. He said that he and some other Southern superintendents were establishing a "legal defense fund" for me and that they wanted me to confess to insubordination. The defense was to be that it was the only alternative available to help the children of Alabama. He had spent his career in Mississippi.

Another friend asked me: What have you learned from the experience? I could not answer at the time, but I gave it a lot of thought later. I think the answer is this: Zebras don't change their stripes. The people who hire you to change their schools are the same people who made them the way they are, and they had reasons for it. They may talk about change and improvement, but many of the attitudes that produced the current state of affairs (whatever it may be) are still very much alive in any community, regardless of what people may say during the courtship. People with power do not give it up willingly. They may want to change and mask the appearance of the power at times, but not give it up or even share it.

Some of my more experienced professional friends will read these words and think: "Well, everybody knows that, stupid." To a degree, they will be right. The problem with me and Mobile was that no one appeared to be willing to admit that things were really bad. Or at least no one would say so publically. And things were so fundamentally wrong that I could not ignore them. They violated nearly everything I have ever been taught about good public schools.

Senator Ann Bedsole, in one of her many anti-Magann comments, said: "We opened our hearts to him and prayed that he was the answer to our problems. We thought that he would be a help to us...that we would live happily ever after but it didn't work out that way." It could have. All I would have had to do was surrender everthing I believed about children, public schools, fair play, and democracy. If my "arrogance" had not gotten in the way, I probably could have "lived happily ever after" with them.

Taxes: Equity and Adequacy

Good schools cost money, and the production of adequate learning opportunities costs roughly the same amount from coast to coast. This should not be surprising. The labor cost of production for most products is no longer a function of location in this country. In labor intensive industries, the South's lower labor costs were a factor at one time but, as technology has been introduced, the relative importance of domestic labor costs has diminished. This explains the exportation of jobs across our international borders.

My point is this: In the United States, the cost of labor is about the same everywhere and schools are labor intensive. How can we expect adequate and equal learning opportunity production when the "investment" varies by as much as 250 percent, depending upon the community in which one lives?

Some communities invest $8,000 per student per year while others invest less than $3,000. Some of the variation can be explained by differences in the "cost of production," i.e., salary levels driven by the cost of living in the area, having to heat the schools for five months out of the year, a wide dispersal of students requiring an extensive transportation system, etc., but not 250 percent variation! If we are serious about increasing average student achievement, we must address the funding equity issue, i.e., equal investments to provide equal and adequate opportunities.

But the equity issue cuts both ways. Not only should we be trying to achieve equitable funding for the schools, but also taxpayer equity. Most people can grasp the notion of equal funding for schools. Taxpayer equity is another matter. Perhaps this is due to the maze of taxing schemes that has evolved in the 50 states over time.

I continue to be shocked at how few people have even an elementary understanding of the various types of taxation that exist in this country and the philosophies behind them. We obviously need to do a better job in Civics classes. But the teachers will have to understand taxation before that can occur. We have several adult generations, living side by side, wanting "tax reform" and hardly anyone understands the issues involved.

Different taxes have different impacts on different segments of the population. This much we all seem to understand, but it stops there. Which taxes have which impacts on which segments is Greek to the average American (and especially to the average Alabamian). The philosophy in our country has always been that those who earn more should pay more in taxes to support the commonweal. This philosophy is grounded in the belief that virtually everyone has some role in the production of the total wealth of the nation and, to protect that wealth and assure its continuance, everyone should pay his or her fair share depending on their ability (which, in theory, reflects their proportionate share of the total wealth).

Some taxes reflect this theory more than others and the arguments advanced for one type over another can, and do, become quite sophisticated (and often convoluted). The graduated personal income tax, for instance, is still thought to be one of "fairest" taxes because it is alleged to track the income of individuals. The more one earns, the more one pays. No one argues with the concept anymore, just the particulars. What will be the allowable deductions and who will they benefit? What will be the tax rates for the various income levels and what will be the cut off points? In short, the concept is pure Americana. It's the rules we want to fight over to gain personal benefits.

The corporate income tax is an interesting derivative of the personal income tax. Today most Americans believe that if we tax corporations, individuals avoid having to pay the bill. The reality is that individuals are the only ones who ever pay any tax! It is only a question of where we pay it. Generally speaking, corporate taxes are passed right along to the consumer just like excise taxes (on gas and oil, for instance). When a government increases the gasoline tax, the rates at the pumps go up the next day. Who is paying it? When corporate taxes are increased, the cost of the product (whatever it may be) increases at the counter sooner or later to offset the tax.

Obviously, there are many legitimate reasons to consider one type of tax over another at various points in time that have absolutely nothing to do with taxpayer equity. Tax policies are developed within the delicate balance of competing international interests (and interstate interests, at the local level). It makes no sense to tax the American automobile industry so heavily that it cannot compete with producers in Europe or Japan. Such a course would only produce labor dislocation and unemployment eventually at home. Of course, we could increase the tariff on imported automobiles to keep our more expensive ones competitive, but our international neighbors would probably retaliate with tariffs of their own on some of the products we export to them. So it becomes very complicated. The individual taxpayer still pays the bill, ultimately.

Economists and politicians spend considerable amounts of time, energy, and money trying to decide what is the best policy at a given point in time (and what can be sold to the American public). Whatever the combination of taxes finally decided upon, it must produce revenue sufficient to pay for all of the services thought to be demanded or desired by the public. Virtually every American wants more service and less taxation. This is the dilemma faced by elected officials: the appetite for service is insatiable, but there is little will to pay for it. No doubt, this is another result of our inadequate Civics courses!

It is apparent that there are at least three major factors in the tax equation: they should be equitable, they should produce the necessary revenue, and they should not produce negative side effects. When a proposed tax fails one or more of these tests, it should be considered long and hard before enactment. Those taxes that exist already need to be reviewed. In recent times, the first and third "tests" have been modified occasionally to mean "saleable to the majority of people who actually vote" and "no negative side effects for certain special interest segments of the population." Some might argue that these modifications simply reflect American political pragmatism at its best, but they are shortsighted responses that have produced economic class divisions unparalleled in our history.

Unlike the graduated income tax, which is considered to be "progressive," i.e., it falls harder on the relatively more wealthy members of the society, a general sales tax is considered to be "regressive." A sales tax rate is applied equally to everyone at the point of purchase. If the rate is 5 percent on a bar of soap, it does not make any difference if the purchaser makes $10,000 or $50,000 per year. Both pay the same tax on the soap. If we assume that everyone must eat, bathe, and purchase medicines occasionally to maintain one's health, and that such expenses are roughly equal for all of us, it is clear that a general sales tax falls harder on the lower income segment of the population than on those who earn relatively more. That is, the percentage of available (spendable) income that is used to pay the tax is more for low income people than for those who are better off. If two individuals (making $10,000 and $20,000 respectively) purchase $5,000 worth of goods during a year and pay a 5 percent sales tax on those purchases, each has paid $250 in tax. The $250 is 2.5 percent of one person's income, but only 1.25 percent of the other's.

Sales taxes, of course must be considered from other angles as well. They can produce negative side effects. If one state or community levys too much sales tax, people will be inclined to make their purchases elsewhere, if they can. On the other hand, a sales tax can be a way of exporting some of a community's tax burden to outsiders. If a community is a regional shopping center, for instance, those who come to shop there from the outside will be helping to pay the bill for the services enjoyed by the host community.

The Ad Valorum, or property tax, is found in every state, although dependency on it varies dramatically. The property tax is considered to be "progressive" because, in theory, it tracks wealth -- particularly wealth as reflected in residential property. People who earn more tend to live in larger, more expensive homes. There are good reasons why so many states use the property tax to fund public schools. First, it is relatively stable. Property values are not given to wild fluctuations like some other tax bases, e.g., gross sales that can decline sharply during recessionary periods or after a natural catastrophe. It would be impossible for schools to plan from one year to the next or to carry on orderly operations if it were impossible to anticipate the revenue. A state could postpone the resurfacing of a road for a year or two with minimal disruption, but not the reception of 50,000 new first graders.

Second, the property base grows with the community. Everyone must have somewhere to hang his/her hat, as the saying goes. As more people move to the community, they have to live somewhere and they will pay property taxes, either directly (as property owners) or indirectly (as renters), to support the services they require. As more people move in, more children will need school service. The property tax is tied to the growth of the community and the accompanying increase in service levels.

Some argue that high property tax rates can produce negative side effects similar to those seen with sales taxes, i.e., they will drive people away from the community. No doubt this is a possibility in some communities and it tends to affect municipalities more than counties. One can move out of the city limits to dodge a tax rate, but one rarely moves out of the county because the home-to- work distance becomes too great. My personal experience has been that the total tax burden (considering all types of taxes) is about the same from community to community and state to state (with a couple of notable exceptions). The mix is different, but the end result is about the same.

In Alabama various devices have been fashioned in law to make even property taxes "regressive." Since the property tax is a major source of school revenue in Alabama (and almost every other state), this perversion has a double barreled effect. Not only is it inequitable from a taxpayer perspective, it does not produce sufficient revenues to adequately operate the schools that are providing services to the children of the lower income families who are paying a disproportionate share of the tax.

The tax structure of the state is so rigged against the working poor that it borders on being criminal, and probably would be if some of the beneficiaries were not making the laws. Alabama is not a bad place to live for a family making $70,000 or more per year. Property taxes are very low, sales taxes are high (but you can only buy so much a year), gasoline taxes are relatively low, income taxes are low, etc. Such a family can probably afford to send their children to non-public schools and maybe even buy a place at the beach after a few years. Many professional/managerial types look forward to corporate assignments in Alabama, especially if their children are out of school.

One seldom hears of working class people trying to move into Alabama. Most are trying to escape to find better schools for their children and better job opportunities. Even the educated sons and daughters of the affluent are leaving to find better places to raise their families during the early years of their careers. Many will never return.

The entire tax scheme in Alabama needs an overhaul, but that will require a Constitutional Convention and a new Constitution. Which is to say that it may never happen. Nearly everything in the state is done by Constitutional Amendment. The Alabama Constitution is the longest in the western hemisphere at some 300 plus pages. Property tax reform, on the other hand, could be achieved through a Constitutional Amendment without having to deal with all of the other issues addressed in the current version. And, it needs to happen soon.

As it stands now, different classes of property are assessed at different rates for tax purposes. There are four classes of property:

ClassTypeAssessment Ratio
IIIAgricultural, Forest,
Owner Occupied Residence
IVPrivate passenger vehicles,
small truck

That is, three pieces of property each valued at $100,000 would be assessed at $30,000 (utility), $20,000 (commercial) and $10,000 (residential). The same tax rate would be applied to all three but the actual taxes paid would be quite different, depending upon the classification.

Class III property reflects something called "current use." This is the real ringer. As the name implies, this provision permits waiver of the real value of land. It was supposed to protect small farmers from urban encroachment but, when it was passed in 1978, it also reduced the taxes on virtually all of the timberland in the state by 50 percent, regardless of who owned it, and provided a shield against future re-valuations. One tract in the City of Mobile, adjacent to one of the largest shopping centers in south Alabama, is classified as "current use" because the owner uses state forestry subsidies to plant pine seedlings every few years. Incredible! Such a policy is not only unfair, it deprives communities of sorely needed revenues and, what may be worse in the long run, it is a disincentive for large landowners to develop their Alabama holdings.

Taxes on timberland in Alabama are ridiculous, unless you happen to own some. The State average is less than $1 per acre. In Georgia, it is between $4 and $5 per acre. In Alabama, 33 percent of the land is controlled by owners of 500 or more acres. The figure is 43 percent in Mobile County. The list of owners begins to sound like the Fortune 500 with names like International Paper Co., USX, Union Camp Corp., American Can Corp., U.S. Plywood Co., Scott Paper Co., Champion Paper Co., etc.

Is it any wonder that the state resembles a Third World colony? These very powerful special interests keep the taxes low, harvest the trees and minerals, develop their holdings elsewhere and wait for the land to appreciate in value.

To put salt in the wound, Class II commercial property includes apartments and other rental housing. Those who cannot afford to own a home are paying twice the rate of those who can. And, they do not get to deduct either the tax or mortgage interest from their federal returns.

Then there are the Industrial Development Boards that have given away the tax base under the guise of attracting new businesses to Alabama. Heavy industries come, extract the cheap natural resources, use the cheap, undereducated labor, pollute the rivers and the air, and send the profits back to corporate headquarters. And, as if to add insult to injury, many of the large timberland owners are recipients of Industrial Development Bonds used to build the factories that employ the cheap labor! The song of the Colonial South.

The people on these boards benefit from their decisions. Their careers are enhanced and, believe it or not, their community status improves because most on the plantation think they have been helped. But these people do not send their children to public schools, or go to public hospitals when they are sick. They use country clubs instead of public parks and they live in enclaves far removed from the masses. They are the masters of the plantation.

Alabama is not the only state with tax equity and adequacy problems, but her problems may be more severe than those of her sister states. Her history is somewhat different. It is filled with treachery, disception, and contrivance by her "leaders." The resulting mess is nearly impossible for any outsider to fathom without having experienced it personally.

Rx for General Reform

Given the mess, what can be done with it? If providing factual information and calling attention to the problems were enough, changes would have occurred long ago. They haven't. It is my considered opinion that nothing short of a revolution is required to right the wrongs that have existed for so long in Alabama. Hopefully, that revolution can take place in the polling booths across the state. But it has to be a revolution. It cannot be limited to token changes at the margins.

The people of Alabama must be willing to vote every incumbent out of office - the good, the bad, and the ugly - friend and foe alike. They must find the resolve to do this unless and until every candidate for public office goes on the record as supporting the changes that are needed. Such a revolution could take place as early as 1994, if the people become aroused enough to begin it now. The rank and file, working class Alabamian must fix Alabama. No one else can, and no one else should. If the people do not want the changes, they should accept the consequences and stop complaining about them. Further, the rest of the country should stop being concerned about Alabama and simply treat it as the Third World colony it will resemble for decades to come. It is time to make the bed and lay in it.

What are the needed changes? I offer the following as starting points.

The people must have the right to referendum and recall. Without these two tools, they have no control over their lives after the elections. Once in office, the representatives become rulers. The referendum and recall processes should be made difficult enough to preclude capricious use, but they need to exist in order to establish accountability to the public.

The public information and public records laws need to be strengthened. Every meeting of every public body and its committees must be open to the public. This means the Legislature, too. There should be criminal penalties for anyone violating the law. The public's business must be taken out of the back rooms and done in public. This means no more closed committee meetings and no more executive sessions for any reason. It means that every citizen of the state has access to every public document (budgets, proposed bills and ordinances, drafts of proposed rules and regulations, etc.).

Campaign fund reporting needs to be beefed up also. Every candidate should be required to report contributions in a timely manner and local papers should be required to publish the reports at certain times prior to elections. The public needs to know which special interests are supporting which candidates and why. And, they need to know it well in advance of the elections. Candidates should not only have to report the source of contributions but also the way the funds were used.

The public should require that cost and impact studies accompany every bill introduced into the Legislature. This alone would go a long way toward curtailing narrow special interest legislation and "pork barrel" proposals.

To accomplish this, the public must be willing to fund an adequate Legislative staff. The current arrangement is unfair to all concerned. Legislators are placed at the mercy of special interest lobbyists because they do not have sufficient staff to do the necessary background research on the various issues with which they are confronted. In most cases, Legislators must draft their own bills and this explains much of the confusion and litigation expenses that too often follow Legislative sessions.

Bill drafting and analysis requires expertise just like anything else. It is a very important process and people should not accept it being done in a half baked manner. The failure to provide adequate staffing is another case of being "penny wise and dollar foolish." Unless and until the legislative process is professionalized to some extent, the public will continue to be placed at the mercy of the special interests that currently control the state.

There needs to be "home rule" for local governing bodies, including fiscal independence. State legislators have enough to do dealing with statewide issues. The current dependence on local bills to address local problems effectively precludes any semblance of accountability for local officials. It is an inefficient and stupid practice. Let the Legislature set the rules by which local governments will operate and then get out of the way and let local officials be responsible to their constituents.

Local governing bodies need the authority to raise necessary revenues to address changing conditions. Not unlimited authority, but some. The Legislature should establish initial statewide caps on the tax levying abilities of local governments, and then let the people deal with the local officials on local matters. The people should have the right to exceed those caps by referendum, if they choose to do so.

Every candidate running for office should be required to pledge support for a Constitutional Convention to clean up the current hodgepodge and create a document adequate for the 21st century. The resulting document should be short and sweet. It should focus on the protection of fundamental rights and provide the agreed upon "rules of the road" for the future interactions between all branches and levels of government in the state. Calling such a convention, drafting a document and putting it before the public would do more to awaken the people of Alabama and induce them to become actively involved in governing themselves than anything I can think of at this point. Further, the momentum derived from the experience would assure a reasonable level of involvement for several generations.

The "fiscal year" for Alabama needs to be changed. The October to October arrangement creates hardships and confusion for nearly everyone. It is particularly burdensome for school systems and universities that must operate on academic years. Nearly every state in the nation long ago moved to a July to July fiscal year. There were reasons for this. Public school and higher education funding makes up a lion's share of each state's budget. Students begin classes in August or September and teachers must be placed under contract during the summer months. Planning has to occur during the spring of each year. This is virtually impossible under the current arrangement. If new programs are to be implemented or if reductions have to be made, such actions need to occur in July and August rather than in October after the students are back in classes.

The Personal Income Tax in Alabama needs to be changed to track the Federal Income Tax. As it stands now, the tax falls heaviest on those who can least afford to pay it and it discourages people from seeking work. A family of four begins to pay income tax in Alabama when it earns $4,000. We ought to at least exclude income up to the national poverty level.

Candidates should be made to pledge support for removal of the seemingly myriad exemptions to the sales tax and replacing them with food and drug exemptions only. Again, current rules make the tax fall heaviest on those who can least afford it. The negative impacts on certain special interest groups would more than be offset by the income tax adjustment.

Candidates for office should be forced to commit to certain changes in the ad valorum (property) tax structure. All property should be assessed at 100 percent of fair market value and the assessments should be equalized from county to county. Other states have found ways to do this and so can Alabama. Fair assessments require professional expertise, and rules that everyone can see and understand. The concept of "current use" has some merit if, and only if, it is refined to protect only small working farmers. Everyone else, including the large corporations, should be taxed at the same effective rate on the property they own. Taxes on timberland should be increased to levels of neighboring states immediately.

Ad valorum taxes should be reserved for local governments, with one exception. A statewide levy should be imposed to support the schools on a statewide basis while leaving room for local communities to supplement the state support with additional local discretionary levies up to a specified cap. The Legislature should place caps on the amount of ad valorum taxes permitted for each branch of local government and then step away from the issue except to make periodic adjustments in the state education rate.

Changing the assessment ratios will also require adjusting all current millage rates to levels that would produce, more-or-less, equivalent revenues under the new assessment rules. This does not mean that individual taxpayers would not see changes in their tax bills. Some would. The question is not will some have to pay more, but who will they be and how much more? I am not advocating a "revenue neutral" change. That will not unravel the current mess and solve the problem. Anyone who suggests that the system can be reformed without some having to take a bigger tax bite is being less than honest. It cannot be done and everyone is simply going to have to live with that unpleasant reality.

But certain steps can be taken to make the system fair and to minimize the pain for the average citizen. Residential property taxes will increase under this scenario but they will be offset by decreases in the sales tax from the exemptions on food and drugs. Further, the "homestead exemption" should be made more realistic, say $30-40,000, and it should be calculated using what is known as the "circuit breaker" approach.

This means that everyone will pay some ad valorum tax. For instance, the first $10,000 of value might be taxed and the next $30,000 exempted, then tax all of the remaining value. A person living in a house assessed at $20,000 would pay taxes on the first $10,000 only. Another person living in a $70,000 home would pay on the first $10,000, skip the middle $30,000, and pay on the last $30,000. Such an approach is desirable because it tends to keep every citizen involved with his/her local governments. Everyone is affected in the pocketbook by the decisions that are made.

Additional provisions could be provided for people living on fixed incomes. Retirees could be permitted to defer their property taxes, or some portion of them, until the home is either sold or passes into an estate, if certain assessment and income conditions develop. I believe that these policies, if implemented, would make the system fair and would make it palatable to most citizens.

Finally, the Legislature should establish millage "caps" for the various levels of local governments that are reasonable and that provide some latitude. Counties could levy millage only up to a prescribed level before having to go to the people in a referendum. The same for municipalities, school boards, and all other governing bodies. After the "caps" have been set and the rules of the system put into place, legislators should step back and allow local officials to deal with local people to address local problems.

Rx for Public Schools

The public schools in Alabama (and in every other state) will not improve substantially until (1) reasonably adequate resources are provided and (2) they are distributed in an equitable manner. Wealth is not evenly distributed across our land, but children are. The quality and quantity of schooling opportunities available to a child ought not be a function of where his/her parents happen to reside. The continuation of such a policy is shortsighted and will sacrifice succeeding generations. The collective wealth of this land should be made to stand behind every child when it comes to schooling. States must level the playing fields within their borders and the Federal government must level the fields among the states. Anything short of this is truly placing the "nation at risk."

How should wealth be measured for public education purposes? Many indices have been proposed and some are more appropriate for certain purposes than for others. I am of the strong opinion that the property base is the best general index. It can be identified, monitored, is relatively stable over time, and it is a reasonably good surrogate measure for actual income from all sources. Using the property base, one can determine the amount of available wealth in a given community that "stands behind" each school age child by dividing the number of children into the total assessed valuation of the school district.

We should expect each community to make a minimal effort to support its public schools. Effort should not be measured in dollars but in mills levied on a uniformly assessed tax base. It is unfair to require relatively poor communities to raise the same dollar amount per student that relatively wealthy communities can raise with lesser millages. Put another way, there is a significant difference between "effort" and "ability" that must be recognized and equalized.

-- November 23, 1993

The Harbinger is a biweekly newspaper published through the effort of The Harbinger, which consists of area faculty, staff and students, and members of the Mobile community. The Harbinger is a non-profit education foundation. The views expressed here are the responsibility of The Harbinger. Contributions to The Harbinger are tax exempt to the full extent of the law and create no liability for the contributor.