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On Whose Authority

by Bo Boylan

September 7,2008

Local taxing authority for Mecklenburg County’s Board of Education (BOE) has been in the news lately. In case you’ve missed some of the press, the issue of taxing authority deals with the BOE’s ability to raise funds for both operating and capital construction expenditures related to the operation of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.

Currently, Mecklenburg County’s Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is tasked with this responsibility. On the operating side, CMS relies on the county for approximately 30% of the funds necessary to pay teachers, operate cafeterias, run school buses, and other important operating activities essential for running a successful school system. The state of North Carolina contributes approximately 60%, with the balance coming from the federal government. CMS prepares an operating budget, submits it to the BOE, then on to the BOCC for final approval. CMS also secures funds in the form of operating grants from a variety of local and national organizations for initiatives either not funded, or are under funded in the annual operating budget.

On the capital construction side, the BOCC again controls the process for securing funds for school construction, repair, and remodeling. In certain cases, the BOCC will put a general obligation bond on the ballot in November with an up or down vote from the citizens of the county to determine how much they want to invest in school construction, over a specified period of time. In other cases, the BOCC issues certificates of participating- commonly referred to as “COPS”- that do not require public approval, also referred to as “non-voted debt”. Similar to the operating side of the school system budget requests, CMS submits a capital construction budget approved by the BOE that is forwarded to the BOCC for a final decision on what gets placed on the November ballot.

So why is the issue of taxing authority being raised? Supporters of granting CMS the right to raise their own funds point to the fact that approximately 85% of all school districts in the United States have this responsibility. Supporters also point to what they believe to be an obvious disconnect between authority and accountability. The BOCC, they argue, is not on the hook for CMS’s success yet they hold the purse strings nonetheless. Put differently, if I have the responsibility to deliver results I should have the authority to secure the resources necessary to achieve success. Our City Council operates in this fashion currently. BOE members and the superintendent are held accountable for operating the school system but do not have final authority over the financial resources necessary to do their job.

Opponents of this measure move quickly to the issue of checks and balances. It’s important, they argue, to separate the operations side of the school system from funds development. Sort of the fox guarding the hen house argument. Making CMS go through the rigors of budget approval forces them to consider issues they might not otherwise consider if they did not have this reporting structure in place. BOCC members control the purse strings but do not have authority over who spends the money because they do not hire and manage the superintendent of schools.

Granting the BOE taxing authority is indeed an emotional issue and elicits impassioned responses for all sides of the argument. Sadly, a broader discussion of this important issue often stalls with rants about the ability of our current school board to function effectively in this capacity. Others argue that you simply cannot have a discussion on taxing authority without discussing how we elect school board members. Currently citizens of Mecklenburg County vote for a representative from the district in which they reside, and three at-large members- a total of four out of nine positions.

So who is right? Of course where you sit on this issue depends on where you stand. Regardless, we need to open up community dialog on the topic. Including the broader aspects of the issue including how we elect school board members, how we hold our elected officials accountable for successful deployment of resources, and consideration of alternative sources of revenue. We spend just north of $1 billion annually on the operating side of our school system, and hundreds of millions on school construction. It’s a “taxing” issue any way you look at it.

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