IN A SHOW of bipartisanship and unity, the Savannah/Chatham school board and the City of Savannah have come together to fight a new statewide tax reform plan that they say would starve schools of needed funding.
The so-called GREAT (Georgians for the Repeal of Every Ad Valorem Tax) plan — proposed by House Speaker and likely gubernatorial candidate Glenn Richardson — would do away with school property taxes, replacing them with a sales tax increase.
While that might sound great to some local homeowners, members of the school board say we shouldn’t believe the hype:
“We’re taking this as an opportunity to eduate members of community to try and follow what’s going on, and not be misled by people out there saying, ‘let’s get rid of property taxes,’” said board member Lori Brady.
In a press conference last Thursday — coinciding with similar ones going on all across the state — members of the school board and city government, including City Manager Michael Brown, gathered on the steps at 208 Bull Street to air their grievances and call for support from local parents, teachers, and concerned citizens.
While stressing that the board is generally in favor of tax reform, “we do believe any tax reform that’s anticipated should involve deliberate, thoughtful and transparent process,” said school board President Joe Buck, in a clear jab at the breakneck pace with which Richardson’s proposal has been pushed forward.
“We’d like to see at least a study committee to study the implications of replacing property taxes with sales taxes,” echoed Brady, just back from giving impassioned testimony to the state House Ways and Means Committee.
“If you use just the idea of replacing property taxes with sales taxes, well just last week President Bush has acknowledged a possible recession,” Brady went on.
“The sales tax is a very volatile tax and using it to fund public education would be disastrous,” she said.
The board’s position is that going to a sales-tax based system centralized in Atlanta would make budgeting virtually impossible. “The current version they’re talking about still has us setting the millage rate, but the money would go directly to Atlanta, where the sales tax is collected, and we’d wait on them to distribute the money back,” Brady said. “We can’t plan a school year – or anything – not knowing what our revenues are going to be.”
Another concern of the board is local control of local schools. “Quite frankly, I don’t think the General Assembly should be directing what we do with our school district as far as what we offer our students,” said Brady. “We’re elected by Chatham County residents. We know better what impacts our students and the needs of our students than people in Atlanta.”
Buck echoed that.
“School board members are accountable to the local electorate, and we view with concern any legislative initiative that would result in limiting those constitutional powers,” he said.
In later remarks, Buck told Connect that his years of experience as an administrator at Armstrong Atlantic State University before his election makes him think that Richardson’s “GREAT” plan isn’t that great.
“A sales tax just scares me to death. And the other part that scares me to death, having been in higher education, is having to go to the state and beg for our money every year,” Buck said.
“That’s exactly what we would be doing. And it’s really frightening, because you never know when there going to decide on some whim, let’s give it to somebody else.”
While local control will remain an issue going forward — for our county as well as every other in Georgia — the local school board has decided to fight fire with fire by proposing their own solution, one with a very local color: Extending the Stephens-Day homestead exemption statewide.
“We embraced tax reform locally by supporting the Stephens-Day homestead exemption with a CPI index. This locally proven tax reform initiative could be expanded statewide,” suggested Brady.
“It does work, and we have been able to lower taxes and millage every year and still keep going with it, without hitting the homeowner any worse than we usually get hit as homeowners,” agreed Joe Buck.
Buck — a Republican as is Brady, Richardson, Gov. Sonny Perdue and most of the state’s elected leadership — says that by taking a proactive approach and getting involved in tax reform now, the state’s public schools can realize dividends later.
“I’ve heard a lot of people in other districts saying, ‘we’ve got to have our property tax.’ But I’ve been in this a long time, and I keep telling them, when it goes into the legislature it’s gonna come out as something,” Buck said. “So we better start trying to live with or influence what they come up with.”
Brady urged concerned citizens to “contact members of the General Assembly so that members are hearing from community members and not just us.”
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