Thursday, October 4, 2012

Miracles Replace Taxes

Today’s paper, (which I read as a paper and not on-line) has this headline: “Union City School Library Rescued by Donor” (SF Chronicle 10/3/12 Section C). The article says that 4000 students at James Logan High School will have access to their library because a generous anonymous donor has given $60,000 to keep it open. Prior to this donation, the library had only been open for one period a day. The school’s ability to maintain a library had been cut when the residents of Union City failed to pass a $180/yr parcel tax. The school administrators all exclaimed, “It’s a miracle.” And “It restores my faith in humanity.

Union City, CA is a little south of Oakland. It is a middle class town of about 70,000. Like many towns in CA, it is majority people of color (43% API, 25% Latino, 7% African American and 30% white.) Median household income is $87,000, which is higher than the state as a whole ($59,000) but on par with the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

One could wonder about the reluctance of the home and business owning population to be willing to tax themselves less than 50 cents a day to keep their school libraries open particularly in light of the fact that the median age in Union City is 33 and 45% of households have children under 18. But of course the story is more complicated than it looks. California requires a 2/3rds majority to pass any tax increase (66%) and this ballot measure only got 62.9%! In any normal place that would have been seen as an overwhelming approval of the tax. Most sad is that less than 10,000 people voted on this initiative and so it lost by about 300 votes. Basically, about 300 people decided the fate of school libraries. A requirement of a 2/3rds “super majority” is, in fact, rule by a tiny minority—often 2-4% of voters.

I am happy for the students of James Logan High School and certainly feel grateful to this donor. But this will only take care of this year and next year the students will once again have very limited library hours.

This is a teachable moment in Union City to have conversations about how public school libraries should be funded—by miracles? Or by taxes? The reality is that most libraries, art, music, language and sports programs in public schools which are now on the chopping block all over California will not (indeed, cannot) be rescued by generous individuals.

The miracle I pray for is three-fold: 1) that California will someday return to majority vote and overturn our 2/3rds rule, 2) that people who can vote will get out and do so, and 3) that people will vote in favor of revenue.

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