Little Rock School District voters will be asked to approve more than a half-billion dollars in additional school taxes May 9. There’s a basis for argument that voters should approve any school tax. But not the arguments made at a forum last night by retired Central Arkansas Library System Director Bobby Roberts.
In a debate with tax opponent Jim Ross, a former School Board member, Roberts was quoted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as saying it would be “dangerous” to defeat the proposal.
“If the citizens of Little Rock cannot pass this, if I were [Arkansas Education] Commissioner Johnny Key or I were the governor I would say, ‘I am in no hurry to turn this school district back over to an elected school board because there is no support in the community for it.'”
This is Stockholm Syndrome on display. If only we’ll be nice to Johnny Key, who controls the district since the takeover, and the governor, they’ll keep being nice to us.
The evidence is overwhelming to the contrary. Just last week, Key and the governor stomped to death Education Board member Jay Barth’s idea to have the Board vote to begin a gradual return to popular control in elections in May 2018. This followed a legislative session at which Key opposed every bill to treat public schools and privately run charter schools on equal footing. He personally testified to defeat a bill that would have put a temporary moratorium on addition of charter school seats in Little Rock. Fired Superintendent Baker Kurrus has demonstrated with massive statistics how damaging the charters have been to Little Rock, in taking achieving students from achieving schools. Thousands more are soon to migrate to expansions at eStem and LISA Academy. Key meanwhile encourages more charter schools and was a prime mover behind legislation that allows charter schools to take public school buildings on terms unfavorable to the school districts. Key’s department rarely objects to a new charter school and tolerates poor performing charters, while holding Little Rock to a tougher standard. Any more of this nice treatment and we’ll need a priest for last rites.
There is every indication that the state has NO intention of returing the Little Rock School District to voters. Poised in the wings is a national charter school chain with multiple applications for still MORE charter schools in Little Rock. Neither Key nor the backers of this half-a-billion dollars in new taxes are speaking vigorously for a return to local control or against continued charter or school voucher expansion. They prefer to not talk about it all.
Roberts is right about one thing: The scheduled tax vote is an easy way to raise money. He’s a master of the dodge. It’s not a tax increase, see. It’s just a “refinance” of bonds. This costs hundreds of millions in new interest payments. It also embeds an ongoing tax increase for 30 years. The district is doing what the library did — taking advantage of a good bond market and the expected annual rise in property tax assessments to get additional money at a little ol’ not-a-tax-increase election.
A big difference is that the state law was stricter for libraries when Roberts was running his library tax shell game. Libraries could spend the new money created by refinancing only on capital improvements. A quirk in state education law allows districts to salt away the tax income from rising tax values for operations — now $26 million a year in Little Rock more than debt payments. In 30 years, this no-tax tax increase could be producing $50 million a year or more for operations without voters ever once approving such a tax increase. (I wonder why the school district didn’t use Roberts’ masterful farewell dodge: A tax “decrease” of a tenth of a mill approved by voters actually produced millions more in taxes for the library.)
Does a district need all that new money if its students are to be pilfered by Johnny Key’s charter school imperative, a philosophy apparently endorsed by the governor? Is there a future time when more vacated schools are available for new charter schools at good terms? Is there a future time when the state decides the district can’t be saved and it’s farmed out entirely to private operators, as has happened in New Orleans?
Don’t ask Johnny Key, your school board. He doesn’t talk to the people he’s telling to vote for 14 years more taxes on 12.4 mills pledged partially to debt.
Bobby Roberts may think kissing up to the man holding the district hostage makes sense. I’m not so sure .
Roberts said one other thing that I believe is incorrect.
“Mike Poore and everybody in here has said enough about where the buildings are going to be built and what the schedule is going to be for that — that is going to be a mighty powerful document in a lawsuit,” Roberts said. “The idea of breaking out very far from this is far-fetched.”
I don’t think a court in Arkansas would say a politician’s campaign promises are binding in a court of law. The only thing that binds spending of tax proceeds is the ballot measure on which people vote.
Here’s what the ballot for the $600 million Little Rock tax vote says:
The total proposed school tax levy of 46.4 mills includes 32.0 mills specifically voted for general maintenance and operation, 2.0 mills for dedicated maintenance and operation mills dedicated specifically for the purposes of technology and capital improvements, and 12.4 mills voted for debt service previously voted as a continuing levy pledged for the retirement of existing bonded indebtedness. The 12.4 existing debt service mills now pledged for the retirement of existing bonded indebtedness, which debt service mills will continue after retirement of the bonds to which now pledged, will be a continuing debt service tax until the retirement of proposed bonds to be issued in the principal amount of $202,645,000, and which will mature over a period of 30 years and will be issued for the purposes of refunding the District’s outstanding bonds dated January 15, 2012; and erecting and equipping new school facilities and making additions and improvements to existing facilities. The surplus revenues produced each year by the debt service millage may be used by the District for other school purposes.
Got that? No specific projects are enumerated. And note that surplus may be used “for other school purposes.” That means ANYTHING.
Bobby Roberts has an admirable record of community involvement and advancement, including long labors in behalf of education that I’ve cheered more than once. I don’t call him down lightly. But here, I call him down. His trust in Johnny Key and Asa Hutchinson isn’t supported by evidence. Nor, frankly, is it supported by the push for the money by some of the same business establishment forces that worked to oust the elected school board (coincidentally majority black). They’ve adopted the Walton lobby’s line that everything was terrible in Little Rock schools until Johnny Key took over. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an insult to tens of thousands of children, parents and teachers to say otherwise and to describe the pushback as somehow petty politics