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As Long as We Remember...

October 13, 2011

School Board Taxing Authority?

Blaine R. Young

Over the last few weeks you may have noticed the beginnings of a discussion on the idea of giving the Frederick County Board of Education taxing authority to go along with their spending authority.


Commissioner Billy Shreve and I floated this idea, and we believe it merits further discussion and consideration.


First of all, some clarifications are in order. This is not a proposal for additional taxation of our taxpayers. As I have said many times, we are taxed enough.


Instead, the intent would be to divide the current revenues between two taxing authorities, the Board of County Commissioners and the Board of Education.


Presently the Board of County Commissioners collects all of the taxes imposed at the county level, and over 50% of the taxes collected are transferred to the Board of Education for spending. The county’s contribution to the school system represents over 40% of Frederick County Public Schools’ budget, with the balance coming from state and federal funds. So, although the commissioners now determines how much money the Board of Education gets from the county, it essentially get a lump sum and then spend it as the members see fit.


Commissioner Shreve and I think it is worth discussing whether or not the people who are spending the money should be required to account to the taxpayers for how much money they are collecting from them and how they are spending it.


It is also worth noting that more than 50% of the local governments in the United States authorize taxing authority for their school systems.


That’s right; there are more jurisdictions that have direct taxation by the school boards than those that do not. So, it is not like we are proposing something from outer space. This is a model that is used successfully in many jurisdictions; and, as I said above, we are merely proposing that it be discussed here in Frederick County.


People have asked us why we are putting this out for discussion now. I think there are a couple of good reasons why we should begin this discussion.


First of all, I am not sure I understand the point of an elected school board that does not have taxing authority. The Board of Education, although a very important body in that it determines the educational paths of our children, is, at budget time, reduced to essentially begging the county commissioners for money. I think that if you are going to have a citizen that puts him/herself out to the voters and says “Elect me,” you ought to consider entrusting them with the authority to tax the people who vote for them.


Secondly, I want to make it very clear we are not talking about additional tax revenue. In fact, the state would effectively set the minimum tax rate to be assessed by a Board of Education at the Maintenance of Effort level as determined by state officials. Under current law, all counties must fund their school systems at a minimum level, and the boards of education would have to tax at the rate necessary to raise that amount of funding.


If the school board wanted to raise funds in excess of the state Maintenance of Effort level, they would have the authority to do so, but they would have to convince the taxpayers that such extra taxation is necessary and appropriate. But, if the Board of Education is elected, they should be able to justify the amount of revenue they want to take from the taxpayers and would have to answer for it at the polls.


Finally, I believe that giving taxing authority to the Board of Education would add a significant amount of openness and transparency to school system budget decisions.


If the voters and taxpayers know that the school system will be coming to them directly for funding, I think we will see greater communication and clarity from the Board of Education in communications with the public at budget time. And if school board members do not want to take on this responsibility, then I think we should consider reverting back to previous law: do away with the elected Board of Education and return to an appointed one.


I would propose that if we did that the authority to appoint school board members be divided between the state and the county, since the state and county share responsibility for funding the school board budget. Before we had an elected board, the governor made all the appointments.


There is no reason to waste time, effort and resources on an elected school board if they are not going to be responsible to the public for raising the money they need and for the ultimate budget decisions.


Of course, as with any new idea, there are cons as well as pros. The school board would have to create the infrastructure and hire the staff necessary to institute and implement its taxing authority.


But with the county officials here with immense experience, and with a number of areas in which we could share resources, I do not think this extra burden is enough to disqualify the proposal out of hand.


I look forward to further discussions of this idea as we move forward, and I hope the residents chime in and let us know their opinions.


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