Springfield, MO

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Bidness As Unusual

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by Paul Flemming

Down in flames went the Springfield Public Schools' bid for a 27 percent increase in property taxes. The two measures a 63-cent increase in the schools' operating tax levy and a $54.5 million bond issue were defeated with 70 percent and 56 percent, respectively, of the electorate voting against.

The outcome, in the well-known hindsight, was not too tough to predict. Any request for more than a 25 percent jump in taxes is a tough sell. But it is too easy to analyze the voice of the voting public as anti-tax.

Undoubtedly the size of the request was a contributing factor to its failure. However, it diminishes the intelligence of those who voted against to think that the merits of the proposal played no part in that decision.

Proceeds from the tax increase, if passed, would have been used for increases in teacher salaries and construction of a sixth high school, among many other things. The case for those ideas was not compelling or, at least the case for those proposals as the best and only alternatives to cure particular ills was not overwhelming.

Is redistricting to better distribute student population an alternative to more building? It's a tough action to take, but it is at least an alternative. And though I am in favor, in general, of higher pay for educators, the case that Springfield's schools would suffer a talent drain from surrounding districts if the salary increases were not instituted did not jibe with the numbers.

Yes, Springfield's pay for beginning teachers with only a bachelor's degree was not at the very top of the salary scale in southwest Missouri. But it was near the top. And pay at levels for longer service and with higher degrees far outstripped many outlying districts' salaries at similar levels. Wouldn't the smartest teachers realize this long-term advantage?

And, some of the tax-increase money would have been used to make up for what seemed to be school-board mismanagement. If upgrading the system's fleet of buses to get rid of old, high-maintenance vehicles is such a dire need, what was the rationale for the decisions that got the district in this pickle to begin with?

So, there are merits to voting against this particular tax issue beyond hating taxes. Those who voted the measure down deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to analyzing their reasons for doing so.

With plenty of reasons for voting against the April 7 issues, now it is time to consider what it means for this city's schools and what should be done next.

The general idea of improvements for schools is a popular one. Convincing voters that particular proposals are right is more difficult. But there are steps that can be made to improve chances next time.

?A long journey can be taken with tiny steps. Other districts in the state make targeted, tangible requests of voters on a regular basis, in much smaller tax-increase increments. It's too late to fix the fact that this strategy has not been used in the past, but each new tax question is a chance to do things better.

Though there's the danger of taxpayer perception of death by a thousand cuts, specificity and results can win voters over to approve multiple, small tax increases on a regular basis.

?Make the hard choices. Redistrict to take advantage of the physical plant you've got. Make cuts where necessary year to year so that long-term neglect does not necessitate a radical response. There are only old buses transporting children because a past board abdicated responsibility for making tough calls.

?Pursue and advocate state action to liberalize the sources from which school districts may draw their funding. Limiting school revenues to property tax causes geographical inequities and limits creativity.

?Educate the constituency on the importance of a strong, successful public school system.

This last is as much our responsibility in the media as anyone else's. At least at the Business Journal, the immediacy of the week's events sometimes overwhelm critical larger-picture issues. The whole community, and the business community particularly, has its future inextricably linked to the education of our children, and we would do well to tell that story.

Universal public education is a Jeffersonian ideal, born of the Enlightenment and carried out more completely and successfully in this country than anywhere else in the world. It is an undeniable element of the United States' position in the world today, studies of lagging U.S. students notwithstanding. This system still does its job.

Taxes are the way we pay for such an important element in our society. Voting is the way we tell the folks in charge if specific actions are right.

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