Monday, June 11, 2007

Schools could suffer in Wake of contradictions

A recent survey by the News and Observer collected the opinions of 1000 Wake County residents on the quality of Wake County schools and how to fund them. Before we go into a discussion of some of the results and crosstabs it is important to note the methodology. This is a survey of Wake County residents, not likely voters and especially not likely voters for the upcoming municipal and school board elections. So while these results are interesting and important, they are not necessarily the best predictor of any future election outcomes.

In the current whirlwind of the year-round schooling hubbub and calls for smarter growth, the results from the May 30th, 2007 poll reflect that not only do Wake county residents overwhelmingly oppose a possible school bond package (63% oppose it while only 26% support it), they also oppose new property and sales tax increases to pay for schools and do not think the Wake County School Board, County commissioners, or elected officials are handling the growth well. There seems to be a number of contradictions in the survey’s findings that are somewhat alarming.

For example, although 57% of people rate the quality of Wake County Public Schools as excellent or good, only 23% said they favor raising property taxes “to pay for building more public schools and reduce crowding at Wake’s public schools.” It seems as if people want it both ways: they want to see the continued high quality of education provided to their children but they don’t want to pay for that service through property taxes that would help schools keep up with the massive growth. Also, a majority of people rate the School Board, county commissioners, and elected officials fair or poor when it comes to how well they are keeping up with growth. That rating seems strange considering that citizens are unwilling to pay the taxes that would help leaders keep up with the growth.

One telling result that shows just how unpopular Wake County’s recent property tax increases have been is the fact that even 65% of Democrats surveyed are opposed to increasing property taxes to pay for schools. Although more Republicans, 77%, oppose a property tax increases, a rising trend of Democratic opposition does not bode well for future bond proposals.

There are clear party differences when it comes to how Wake county residents view school performance. Sixty-five percent of Democrats who responded gave Wake County public schools a good or excellent rating, while only 53% of Republicans ranked Wake County schools as good or excellent. When asked whether they favor or oppose year-round schools, there were little differences between party responses. Age and income, however, affect opinion. Not surprisingly, respondents 65 years old and older show less opposition to year-round schools. Older citizens are more apt to support year-round schools because they do not have young children. However, when it comes to paying higher taxes to fund those schools, their opposition increases (at least 75% of people older than 50 oppose raising property taxes to support schools), showing another contradiction in the findings. Respondents with household incomes of $20,000 or less showed very strong opposition to higher taxes to year around schooling, with only 38% of respondents in favor. All other income ranges above $20,000 show at least 50% support, with several showing well over half of the respondents in favor of year-round schools.

Some of the survey questions themselves may have affected the responses. The question about a proposed $500 million to $1 billion school bond referendum on this year’s ballot stated that “it would pay for new schools to reduce crowing and would likely raise property taxes.” The fact that the question mentioned that the bond would raise property taxes might have influenced how people responded and led them to oppose it. It is obvious that people would oppose raising taxes, and framing the question in that way could have affected the results. The survey did mention other types of taxes that could help pay for public schools, such as impact fees and a transfer tax (the state legislature would have to grant authority first), but only the school bond question mentioned property taxes.

The questions dealing with how well Wake county leaders have handled growth also seem vague and do not specifically mention growth pertaining to schools. The term growth can apply to many different aspects of the county, including urban development, school, housing, and traffic.

BY Carrie and Mark

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