D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson has postponed a vote on her measure to raise $1 billion for school renovations through various tax increases, saying she wants to give school officials more time to convince business leaders that the funding is needed and would be spent wisely.
Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the council's education committee, said yesterday that delaying tomorrow's committee vote until Dec. 5 will allow school officials to detail how they would use the revenue as well as get feedback from the business community on the construction program.
Last month, several business groups voiced opposition to Patterson's proposal, which would generate $1 billion over the next decade by increasing the city's hotel, parking and cigarette taxes and delaying a planned income tax reduction. The additional revenue would roughly double the school system's capital budget over that period. Patterson last week suggested that she was prepared to replace the proposed hotel tax increase, the most controversial part of the legislation, with an increase in the commercial real estate tax. But business leaders are unhappy with that idea, too.
Barbara B. Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said that in addition to concerns about raising taxes, business leaders want the school system to quantify its capital needs and show how it will avoid the large cost overruns experienced in several of its recent renovations.
Lang said business groups can help the school system develop a credible plan. "Those of us who have expertise in real estate will sit down with the superintendent to help craft a plan," she said.
Patterson said she supports having such discussions, although she would not guarantee that they would prompt changes in her legislation. "There is value in everyone working together. . . . I think it's worth it to get broader support for something that already has strong support," she said.
School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and other school officials also welcomed the offer of assistance from business leaders.
But some education activists were upset at Patterson's decision to postpone the vote and said they thought the business community was being given too big a role in shaping the bill.
"We haven't convinced the council of the urgency of the need. They're more scared of the business community than they are of us," said Marc Borbely, director of FixOurSchools.net, an advocacy group that has led the campaign for more school construction money.
"My big fear in delaying this is it will get lost in the budget process," Borbely added. "In January, everyone will be vying for the dollars, and it will be hard for schools to make an argument for the money."
The school system has a long-term capital improvement plan that is severely underfunded, partly because the D.C. Council has provided far less money than anticipated but also because several of the first projects on the list came in over budget.
Last month, Patterson proposed to address the funding gap by delaying income tax cuts scheduled to take effect in fiscal 2007 and increasing the parking tax from 12 percent to 18 percent, the cigarette tax from $1 to $1.50 a pack and the hotel tax from 141/2 percent to 151/2 percent.
Business leaders said the hotel tax increase would hurt the city's economy by chasing away tourists. Patterson has since replaced that idea with a raise in the commercial real estate tax from $1.85 to $1.88 per $100 of assessed valuation.
Lang said that business officials will press Patterson to seek other means of financing construction, including using surplus city funds, although Patterson has said other funding sources are inadequate and unreliable.
One issue that could divide business and school officials is oversight of the school construction program. Patterson's measure calls for oversight by a nine-member advisory committee appointed by the mayor, the council, the city's chief financial officer and the school board. But Lang said business leaders want an independent entity to manage the construction.
Cafritz and Peter G. Parham, chief of staff for Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, said the school system opposes relinquishing oversight of construction. Previous cost overruns, Parham said, can be traced to an outside entity that managed the work -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We've gone through that experience," Parham said. The school system doesn't need outside management, he said, because the school board "can do the proper oversight" and Janey has "hired new staff that gives us the ability to work with contractors."