and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
April 2004 #5

School advocates spring trap on unwary taxpayers
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Friday, April 30, 2004

With apologies to T.S. Eliot: April is the cruelest month, breeding overrides out of Town Meetings; mixing memories of the days before Proposition 2, and the desire on the part of school committees to return to unlimited property taxation; stirring dull government with spring hope for new revenues.

Sometimes, proponents use children to help win a Prop 2 school override. Notes are sent home in backpacks, urging that parents vote themselves and their neighbors higher taxes. 

Of course, the note cannot say "vote yes" or the sender is in violation of campaign finance law that prohibits using government money or facilities to support a ballot question. Usually it is just "an information piece," letting you know that if the override doesn't pass, civilization as we know it will end. So if you don't care about "the children," well, the end of civilization will be your fault.

Someone mailed me a note that was sent home with his first-grader, who attends public school in a wealthy suburb whose school superintendent is paid $145,000 a year. The public school teacher asked parents for staplers, Scotch tape, glue sticks, pencils, cleaning wipes, tissues, paper towels, dry erase markers, snacks, spoons and forks. 

My correspondent wrote "when I was in school, we didn't use dry erase markers, we used chalk. We didn't have cleaning wipes. We used brown paper towels, not Bountys. My teachers didn't have a stash of snacks to give children because their self-absorbed parents forgot to pack them."

I went to Catholic school, where we shared a bottle of Elmer's glue instead of each having a pricey little glue stick, and parents always bought our personal supplies. Not to complain if parents, instead of childless taxpayers, buy their kids' pens, but meanwhile all of us are paying for annual teacher pay raises in the schools that can't afford pencils.

When I was in eighth grade, we students were told to write to our state representative asking for state money to pay for parochial school buses. When I refused, I was sent to the principal's office and my parents were called in. To my surprise, they agreed with me that I should not be used for political purposes, and I didn't write the letter. 

I wonder if any kids today refuse to carry home the propaganda notes and if their parents back them up.

Another person just told me that his town's school superintendent is sending home a "fact sheet" with his students about the coming override. He suspects that "it will reportedly contain info about how much 'damage' will be done if the override doesn't pass ... however, I bet it will not include a summary of the financial impact the three already-passed debt exclusion overrides have on taxes over the coming years." 

My informant plans to ask his selectmen if other advocates can send their own information home with the students. And he asked to what agency he could file a formal complaint.

That would be the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, One Ashburton Place, Boston, MA 02108. It will act only if public money is being used or if people are spending their own money to influence a vote without formally establishing a ballot committee with the town clerk. Though this superintendent is supposedly using his own money to print the note, I think a taxpayer-funded teacher standing in a taxpayer-funded building handing pro-override notes to kids should be considered in violation of something.

Selectmen have almost no control over the schools, even when they want to, though I'd love to hear them speak out publicly against their town's children being used as tools for tax hikes by educational establishments.

Not that the kids are always innocent victims. Last month, the state Student Advisory Council to the Board of Education, using taxpayer dollars, sent a letter to student council presidents with "our plan of how to pass an override, the easiest way to make your school budget situation better," and included a pamphlet with tips for advancing their agenda. The adult council adviser told me that the intent is "to promote civic involvement" among students. All well and good, but let them wash cars and have a bake sale to raise the money to urge raising taxes.

Why are children advising the state Board of Education anyhow? One of them actually has a full vote on the nine-member board. But I doubt that any of them are paying the property taxes they want to hike. Whatever happened to "no representation without taxation"?

A Superior Court judge just ruled that the state isn't spending enough money on education, though according to The Associated Press, Massachusetts has spent $31 billion since the Education Reform Act of 1993. According to the National Education Association, our per-pupil expenditures are fourth highest in the country, 35 percent above the national average. Our teacher salaries are the nation's sixth highest.

Someone should put that information in a note and send it home with the kids.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.