TWENTY-TWO MILLION DOLLARS stands between this city and chaos.
The District of Columbia school system says it may have to lay off as many as 800 more teachers in addition to the 400 who were fired last year -- in other words, gut the city's educational system -- because of budget reductions imposed on the school system by Mayor Marion Barry and the City Council.
Without a viable public education system, Washington is lost. So the time has come to raise taxes to save our schools.
I have a modest proposal: It is time, I think, to mount a citizen drive for a November referendum that would authorize additionial property or local income taxes.
The mayor has always been opposed to tax increases -- he proposed the property tax relief program when he was in the City Council and reiterated this position just Thursday in his amended 1982 budget. But a majority of District of Columbia residents have said they would rather pay more property taxes than have either service cutbacks or layoffs of city workers, according to a Washington Post poll taken last December.
Barry said the City Council seem to feel it should take less money to educate a declining enrollment. But that becomes a simplistic, almost punitive posture toward the school board and the citizens. What needier cause can a city and a society have than its children?
What would it take to raise $22 million in real estate taxes? About 12 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, according to city financial economist Bob King. That's $85.20 extra a year for the owner of an $80,000 home.
Now it's true that assessments on single-family homes went up this year, but compared to other jurisdictions in the Washington area, residential property taxes in the city are relatively low. And while District of Columbia commerical taxes are higher than in surrounding jurisdictions, any property tax increase for businesses would be a tax-deductible business expense, as it would be for individual taxpayers if they itemize deductions on their federal tax returns.
As a city homeowner, I'm hurting from inflation as much as anybody else and higher property or income taxes wouldn't be easy to cough up. But I think we're facing a crisis of unparalleled magnitude. Our children must be educated.
The Washington Teachers Union believes the mayor when he says that he has no more money in his budget to give the schools. Parent groups are rallying to support increased funding and are trying to organize the community. They, as well as the city's newspapers, have analyzed and chastised. Emotions continue to mount as the reality of the crisis becomes apparent. Yet Congress has not recognized (and apparently is not about to) the priority of public school funding here.
Actually it's not only our children who are at stake. The proposed elimination of adult education programs means that the 200,000 District residents with less than a high school diploma no longer will have the option of obtaining a high school equivalency degree in the city. In the District of Columbia, adult education is not basket weaving; it's the last resort for many Washingtonians who are trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Of course, the long-term answer is to get school board funding out of politics altogether. In some states, the school board has its own tax levy separate and apart from the city levy. While such a system has been a disaster in Ohio, where thousands of jurisdictions set separate levies, it has been an overwhelming success in Minnesota, where the schools have complete autonomy and have taken courageous stands that the politicians didn't necessarily like. Unlike Washington, Minnesota school boards are not generally considered stepping stones for higher political office, but tend instead to attract public spirited citizens who care about education.
Increasing property or income taxes are not the only ways to raise more money for education. It could be done with an increase in the sales tax or any of a variety of other city levies.
But I think by far the most equitable way is the property tax route.
There will be those who will argue against this because Washington is fast becoming a city with a large childless middle and upper class, a smaller middle and upper class whose children go to private schools and a substantial working-class and low-income population whose children constitute the vast majority of the public school enrollment.
But we either pay positively now or we pay negatively later on. As one childless Washington property owner told me, sanctioning such an idea: "I have a stake in the schools. I have a stake in a city that's not racially and class divided. I have a stake in a city where all the people can function, where we give all our children hope."