The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Taking decisions out of the public's hands

An article in the Raleigh, NC News & Observer ("Bill lets schools make build-and-rent deals," July 18, 2006) highlights a push by urban counties and developers to pass legislation that allows school districts to lease school buildings rather than build them themselves. The practical effect of this is that it allows school districts to pursue their building plans without needing voters to approve bond packages.

From the article:

The legislation gives school districts another option for getting new classrooms without a bonds referendum.

For school boards, having that option could mean more certainty. Voters in Mecklenburg County turned down selling $427 million in bonds last year. Polls have shown Wake voters are skeptical about a record $1.06 billion construction plan on the ballot this fall.

Wake, Mecklenburg and other urban counties pushed for the legislation, along with groups representing developers. The bill has passed the Senate and the House and now awaits the governor's signature.

The legislation worries Sen. Hugh Webster, a Republican who represents Alamance and Caswell counties and cast the only vote against it in the Senate. He said a long-term contract is just "debt by another name" and should require voter approval.

"You're spending future generations' money," said Webster, a semi-retired accountant. "It's a dangerous thing to allow to happen. It's just too easy to spend into the future. You can't trust politicians to do that."

This is an instance of the public being pushed out of the public schools. Voters defeat school construction bond issues for one of two reasons: they don't agree with the building plan, or they don't trust the school district (often more specifically, the school board) to be fiscally prudent in its work. And sure, some would say that a third reason would be a desire for lower taxes, but I think that's a red herring - if people see the benefit and trust the people in charge, they'll generally step up to the plate.

Public funding, particularly bond issuances, are a mechanism to ensure that our public institutions are accountable to us: if they can't generate our support, they need to rethink what they're doing and step back into line with our wishes. They are working on our behalf, and if we don't support what they're doing the onus is on them to realign their interests and objectives with ours.

Bypassing this control cuts one more strand of public accountability, and that allows ostensibly public institutions to drift further and further away from their constituents under the illusion of autonomy. But they're not autonomous: their mandate is to use our dollars to achieve our objectives.

If the governor signs this bill, it will be a sad event: it can only serve to widen the rift between the public and public education.


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