Balkanizing the schools Anne Arundel County: Special tax districts would create a system of haves and have-nots.

February 18, 1997

GIVE MICHAEL PACE credit. The Anne Arundel County school board member's idea of creating special taxation districts to generate more money for education suffers from some fundamental flaws, but he raises an interesting question: How long can Anne Arundel, given its existing tax cap, maintain the quality of its school system and provide other essential services?

Mr. Pace's intent is noble. He wants to develop a palatable method of raising more money for education. In his plan, the county would be broken into smaller units, such as councilmanic districts. Residents would have the option of adding a few cents on their property tax rate to raise money that would go directly to community schools.

He acknowledges his self-described "modest" proposal would generate a small amount of money. It would supplement existing county spending toward books, supplies or some additional teachers. He readily admits his plan does not address the long-term funding shortages of county schools. Moreover, dividing the county into smaller tax areas would exacerbate the imbalances between schools in wealthy communities and in poorer ones.

Nevertheless, Mr. Pace believes that these special tax districts, or STDs, are a way to sell cod liver oil as ice cream soda. Voters will be more enthusiastic about supporting these levies because the money will go directly to schools and bypass "the black hole of county government," he says. Moreover, voters will directly control the level of taxation, he adds.

Even if STDs fulfilled his small goals, they don't address the inherent problem of a county whose education needs are growing faster than its revenues. Even though schools claim the lion's share of the county budget now, the backlog of repairs to the physical plant is growing, textbooks are in short supply and teachers have gone a couple of years without a pay raise. Anne Arundel leaders might take note of reports about California's schools, once the best in the nation, but that now rank among the worst after two decades of Proposition 13, that state's tax cap.

Anti-tax sentiment will eventually collide with growing political concerns over the conditions in county schools. STDs won't solve that problem -- or change attitudes.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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