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This is a response to John Ehinger's column in The Huntsville Times on Sunday, November 25, 2001, in which he addressed a recent straw poll by members of the Madison County Republican Men's Club. The vote was on the following two school property tax questions:
1. Are you for or against a 5-mill tax extension for 28 years?
2. Are you for or against a 3-mill tax increase for 30 years?
The results were 87% against and 13% for the 5-mill extension and 88% against and 12% for the 3-mill increase.
Mr. Ehinger had called me a few days before his column was published, asking why members voted as they did. In response, I made it clear that I did not know their reasons, but I provided the following as speculation:
The overwhelming vote against both the extension and the increase in property taxes could have been because of concern that the Huntsville School Board is insisting on conducting a special election in January at a cost of more than $100,000. Additionally, since the turnout of voters for special elections has traditionally been very low, many believe this is an effort to "sneak" the tax proposals by the majority of voters of Huntsville. Since the 5-mill school tax extension will not expire until 2003, a better approach would have been to wait until a regularly scheduled election.
I would like to address several of Mr. Ehinger's positions:
1. Contrary to Mr. Ehinger's assumption, a "no" vote on January 22, 2002, will not make a difference in property values in Huntsville. The problem in several Huntsville schools has already accomplished that.
2. Mr. Ehinger equates a "no" vote to a vote in favor of firing teachers. No one has proposed firing even one of the hundreds of competent teachers in the Huntsville School System. On the other hand, it has been suggested that there are too many administrators, especially in the central office; more support personnel than are needed; and administrators that are paid exorbitant salaries, particularly in comparison to the salaries of teachers.
3. I share Mr. Ehinger's concern for poor children, children from troubled neighborhoods, and children from unstable homes. More money is already being spent to educate those kids, but the test scores are still low. Something is wrong with the way these children are being taught. There must be better solutions than just spending more money on a bad system.
Mr. Ehinger suggests that those opposed to the additional tax burden should offer alternative solutions. Concerned residents of Huntsville have done that. They have offered specific proposals for improving the school system, but it seems no one in authority wants to listen.
I have an alternative proposal that centers on better reading skills. Reading is the door to learning. The school system should teach reading first, as is being done in one private school in Huntsville with great success. About 85% of their children learn to read in their first year of kindergarten. Late blooming students (about 15% of the first-year kindergarten classes) are required to spend a second year in a specialized kindergarten class. After this second year, all of the children have learned to read and are ready for first grade.
Another related solution involves the notion that a child must be in the first grade if he or she is six years old, in the second grade when seven years old, etc. Not all children learn to walk at the same age and not all children can read when they are six. The current practice of socially promoting students should be critically reviewed and changed as required to make sure that a child is in the grade that matches his/her learning level.
Opponents of the special election on January 22, 2002, want a better education for the children of Huntsville as much as those who are proposing the property tax increase. Those on both sides of the issue see a system that isn't working and want to change it. One side seems to think more money will do it. However, studies have shown that there is no correlation between test scores and the amount of money spent per pupil. Those of us who oppose the notion that more money will solve the problem believe that a very different approach is needed if we are to provide a meaningful education for all of the children of Huntsville.
A vote in favor of an increase in property taxes will provide NO assurance that our schools will be better. A vote against the increased taxes will send a strong message that other solutions must be found for this very serious problem.