Proponents recruit, rally troops for ‘1/4-cent for schools’ campaign

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141015-GSOnews-salestax shotby Eric Ginsburg

Supporters of a countywide ¼-cent sales tax increase to fund Guilford County Schools are making an impassioned plea to their network about the need to pass the ballot referendum in November.

Page High School Principal Patrice Faison can’t understand why anyone would oppose the ¼-cent sales tax increase designed to fund the county school system.

With 2,100 students, about half of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch and class sizes ballooned to 37 students in some instances, Faison said she has a hard time convincing her teachers that they are valued.

Pay is flat and the school system had to cut graduation coaches, hurting the school’s impressive feat of hitting a 90 percent graduation rate, Faison said. Morale is low, and the principal feels like her hands are tied.

“When people say what will you use the money for, I say come visit us,” Faison told attendees at a Lunch & Learn on the issue hosted by SynerG and the Junior League. “It amazes me that anybody could be against this. You can hear the passion in my voice.”

School board Chair Alan Duncan, who opened the panel at Elon Law School in downtown Greensboro last week, said the school system has “tremendous resource needs” and addressed the state’s poor national rankings in several categories related to education including spending per pupil.

“We don’t need to be No. 1,” he said. “We don’t even need to be close to No. 1. We just don’t need to be anywhere near 50.”

The panel addressed several questions about the sales tax and how it would function, but several attendees remained skeptical and asked critical questions. A few focused on the fact that the money raised through the tax wouldn’t automatically be designated for the school system, instead requiring the county commissioners to allocate the funding as promised.

With the potential for regular turnover on the board, some wondered, what assurances would there be that the additional tax money would actually end up improving classrooms, and buildings and maintenance?

The guarantee comes by voters holding elected officials accountable, panelists said, emphasizing that the commission approved putting the item on the Nov. 4 ballot by a 7-to-2 vote and made its intention to allocate the money raised for schools quite clear.

Another attendee likened citizens to investors in a company, asking what they could expect in return for their investment in the school system in terms of specific graduation-rate increases or other tangible measures.

141015-GSOnews-salestaxGreen, after saying that he thought it was a very good question, said that it wasn’t possible to make specific projections, especially because it isn’t yet clear exactly where the money will go within the school system.

“Children are not widgets,” Green said.

The school board plans to put 60 percent of the funds raised into the classroom and teacher support and 40 percent into construction and maintenance, Green said, but more specific information — such as how much could go towards teacher pay or classroom technology, for example — isn’t available yet. Regardless, he and other panelists stressed, there is dire need.

“We’re scraping the bottom,” he said. “That cannot be what we want for North Carolina.”

The money raised — a projected $14 million annually — would only make a small dent in funding needs in the wake of cuts by the state and county governments, Green said. Guilford County Schools currently has $1 billion in building needs, he said, adding that the district has slashed positions and spending to the bone since he became superintendent in 2008.

Panelist Winston McGregor of the Guilford Education Alliance made one of the most salient points of the event: Due to a drop in the statewide sales-tax rate, even if the ballot initiative is approved residents won’t be paying more than they already had been. According to the state’s fiscal resource division, a temporary 1 percent sales-tax increase sunset in July 2011 after two years, but there have been no changes in the state rate since then.

Guilford County Schools parent and attorney Jennifer Fountain, who rounded out the panel, added that the 7 percent sales tax rate puts Guilford County in line with other counties in the state. She pointed out that residents would only be paying one additional penny for every $4 they spent, and that the tax would only apply to nonessential items.

As attendees filed out of the lunchtime panel, several picked up buttons and other paraphernalia in support of the “¼-cent for schools” campaign. A few people seemed to stay among the ranks of the unconverted, but the majority— like Faison — just couldn’t understand why anyone would be against it.