Rallying cry: support higher property taxes for schools to have higher property values

I saw a yard sign that made this argument about a proposed tax rate increase for a nearby school district: voting yes to the increase means you are protecting your property values.

This is a circular argument fit for the suburbs. Property values are partly dependent on the perceived status of a community. Generally, higher status suburbs have better performing schools. Thus, paying more in taxes means the property values are likely to increase. For the average suburbanite, this means they should expect a bigger payoff in the end when they sell their home. In other words, vote to hand over some money starting now to guarantee a bigger amount of money later.

There are other reasons a school district and its supporters could give in order to support a tax increase. Provide a better education for the children of the district. Support the important work of teachers. Invest in the community’s future.

But, given the difficulty of asking many suburbanites for higher property taxes, perhaps these abstract notions do not work. Many districts work hard to develop support for a referendum way before it comes to a vote. In this case:

The Board’s vote comes after months of community-engagement work. In January 2018, CCSD 89 Superintendent Dr. Emily K. Tammaru convened a Superintendent’s Finance Committee to examine the district’s financial status and priorities. The committee looked at the nearly $3 million in cuts the district has made since 2009, and examined how rising enrollment and increasing costs have affected the district’s budget.

The members of the Finance Committee eventually recommended two options to the Board of Education:

  • Option A: Increase revenues in order to maintain comprehensive, high-quality educational programming. Increasing revenues would allow the district to avoid cuts to programs that directly impact students.
  • Option B: Reduce programs and increase fees. The district would need to make about $1.2 million in cuts during the 2019-20 school year. These cuts could include reductions of: gifted services, band and orchestra, social work services, library staff, and full-day kindergarten. The cuts could also result in larger class sizes. The cuts could be more significant in subsequent years.

The district then hosted three community meetings to share financial data and gather feedback. Community members who attended those meetings said they valued fiscal responsibility, but did not want cuts that would affect programming and potentially property values.

At the community meetings, 84.7 percent of the people in attendance said they supported increasing the tax rate rather than cutting programs to balance the budget. When the district conducted phone surveys this summer of all residents (parents and non parents), 56.9 percent of residents said they would support a 40-cent referendum.

Even with this supposed support (note the drop-off in support in those who attended the meetings versus those who answered the phone survey; plus, who answered their phone?), the bottom line appeal here is money. Some parts of the district will pay more than others – the referendum page uses a $300,000 value as a baseline while Glen Ellyn has a median housing value of just over $400,000 and Lombard has a median value of $240,000 – but the money will come eventually. Pay us now so you can gain later.

If suburbanites value property values above all, perhaps this is the only way to build support for local tax increases.

Suburban schools (“institutions that are supposed to be the best”) and race (“the deeper systematic issues of race in this country”)

The new documentary America To Me looks at race in a well-funded suburban high school in the Chicago area:

“When you look at institutions that are supposed to be the best, and look at where they fail, you get a deeper understanding of where we’re failing as a whole, everywhere,” James said in a telephone interview.

James and three segment directors spent the 2015-16 academic year embedded inside the high school to follow 12 students in what appears to be a challenging, model educational environment for a highly diverse student body…

“What I hope people take away is a much more complete and full understanding of some of the deeper systematic issues of race in this country,” James said, “even in liberal communities like Oak Park. Even in well-funded school systems like Oak Park’s.”…

“Just because you live in suburban America,” James said, “if you’re black or biracial, it doesn’t mean everything’s cool.”

The setup is a good one: the suburbs are supposed to the places where the residents who live there can together share in amenities like nice single-family homes and local institutions, including schools, that help their children get ahead. If you live in the suburbs, many might assume you have a pretty good life.

But, of course, race and ethnicity matters in the suburbs as well. Historically and today, suburbs can work to exclude certain kinds of residents, often along race and class lines. Suburbs can have some of the same residential segregation issues as big cities. This means that students may be near each other in schools but may not necessarily live near each other or share other settings. Suburban poverty is up in recent decades. All together, just because someone lives in the suburbs does not guarantee a good job or a white middle-class lifestyle.

Regardless of where the documentary ends up at the end, perhaps it can help show what the suburbs of today often look like. The image of white, postwar suburban homes may match a few communities but many others are more diverse and face occasional or more persistent issues.

Once the housing line has been crossed, time to fight over the schools

An interim school superintendent in a suburb north of Chicago recently summed up the battle over redistricting in the school district:

Rafferty broke into a school board discussion on school boundaries Tuesday to express shock at the “exclusionary” attitudes that he said have surfaced in recent weeks. Rafferty said many of the emails and comments from parents and community members regarding proposed boundary changes have been “shocking, embarrassing and ugly.”

“We have families telling us they do not want this population of kids with their population of kids,” said Rafferty, a retired Schaumburg superintendent who has shared superintendent duties in District 112 since February.

“We have other families telling us, ‘Don’t you dare move my students or my neighborhood, but I would love for you to move X, Y and Z to another school to achieve a balance,'” Rafferty said…

His remarks came during a school board discussion of the administration’s recommended boundary changes to accommodate students from Lincoln Elementary School and Elm Place Middle School, which are closing at the end of the school year. Board members set aside the proposed map for a variety of reasons, including the discontent voiced by some parents over the number of low-income pupils attending Northwood Junior High.

This reminds me very much of what I thought was the best chapter in anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s recent book Driving After Class (see my quick review here). That chapter described how a large suburban district in New Jersey decided to move students around based on capacity in schools as well as by race and class. In that case, as a number of the less wealthy and non-white residents of the districts had suspected might happen, the wealthiest community was able to keep its students nearby and severely limit how many outside students were able to attend.

Wealthier and whiter suburbs – Highland Park has a median household income of over $122,000 and is over 92% white – tend to first try to limit poorer residents by limiting the number of cheaper housing units. If that is not completely successful, the next battleground can be schools as residents of such communities tend to prefer that their children go to school with other wealthier children.

Diversity in a community does not necessarily lead to diversity in interaction

Having a diverse population within a municipality or neighborhood doesn’t guarantee the groups will interact or work together:

Although my neighborhood was majority-black for much of my life, most of my friends were white. The same held for most of my parents’ friends. The kids I played with on my block were white. Diversity segregation of this kind manifested in other ways too. Mount Rainier is divided between single-family homes and the WWII-era brick garden apartment complexes that house two-thirds of the population. By the 1990s, these were overwhelmingly populated by people of color, while almost all of the white population lived in the single-family homes…

“On paper we are so diverse, but we really are not integrated,” Christopherson, Miles’ opponent in the mayor’s race, told me in the spring. “Just because you are exposed to people from the West Indies or El Salvador, or African Americans and whites, that has only a little benefit. But what if you were also coming together in a city committee or city events?”…

At present, Mount Rainier is still majority-black, and there are plenty of Hispanic and black homeowners. But consider the most extreme scenario, in which the single-family housing stock largely becomes the preserve of white professionals while working-class people of color remain in the apartments. In that case, Mount Rainier would experience a dispiritingly familiar form of segregation, where urban design and geography separate races. The two housing stocks in town do not share the same commercial corridors. The residents of the apartments are often transitory, and they do not vote as often. They tend to not identify with the commercial corridor near U.S. 1, which contains the Glut Food Co-op and harbors much of the civic infrastructure. Instead, the residents of the brick, multifamily housing do their shopping on the high-speed autocentric Queen’s Chapel Road commercial corridor.

The proposed solution? More interaction across groups within the public school system:

“The important thing is consistent exposure over a long period of time,” says Camille Z. Charles, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Africana Studies. “We are often friendlier with people we actually interact with. We do find there is lasting benefit to that, which is why we think it is important to have [diversity] in schools because kids spend so much time in classrooms and on school campuses.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This is where Census data can let us down and experience on the ground is helpful. From a macro level, a community or city can look very diverse. An obvious example is a major city like Chicago which is around 45% white but is one of the most segregated cities in America. However, this also happens in much smaller communities as well. Take Wheaton, Illinois. Starting in the late 1800s, a small population of blacks lived on the east side of the city. This was unusual: very few Chicago suburbs had any black residents. But, how much interaction was there between groups in Wheaton?
  2. The author notes that this community is unusual in that a sizable white population remained even as the black population grew. This doesn’t happen in many places: as minorities move in, whites leave.
  3. While race is highlighted here as the dividing force, it sounds like social class is also a factor. While the two areas are closely intertwined, addressing one without the other may be as profitable.
  4. The proposed solution in the public schools is not an unusual one. Yet, it does highlight how few social institutions in the United States really cut across racial or class lines. Where else might people of different groups interact when most other opportunities (from churches to local government to social clubs and civic groups) are segregated?

Could high school football stadiums drive economic development?

Among other reasons, the construction of impressive new high school football stadiums in Texas is justified by the idea that they will promote economic development:

School officials have responded to critics by pointing out that the stadium would also be used for soccer games, band competitions, and some state football games; there’s also the hope that retail and restaurant development will spring up nearby. A high school football stadium serves the community in ways other than just bringing in visitors, business, new residents and more tax dollars. One of them is clearly Texas pride in the game-day spectacle.

The evidence is pretty clear with sports stadiums that the public money spent on them tends to go back to the owners and teams, not the community. Could high school stadiums – paid for with tax money yet serving the community – be different?

One point of skepticism is to ask how many significant events these stadiums would hold each year. The biggest crowd events are football games. But, a high school team plays roughly five to eight home games each year. While these stadiums are bigger than the average high school stadium, are there enough fans to support local businesses? It seems like the stadiums need to hold a lot more events to truly bring in people. (Perhaps some of them could attract concerts or festivals?)

A second question is how to directly link the football stadium to economic development. As the article notes, a number of these communities are expected to grow. At least some of this growth would have happened without the flashy new stadium. Are the communities going to survey new residents and businesses to see if the stadium factored into their decision? Or, having built the stadiums, will they attribute positive changes to the stadium?

Finally, it sounds like these communities are locked into competition for stadiums (and other amenities as well as general growth). Is it necessarily the case that building a great stadium would give one suburb a significant leg up on another suburb? If this is a zero-sum game or an arms race, someone will lose. A different view might be that Sunbelt suburban growth will continue in a number of these communities and may not be strongly related to the construction of high school stadiums (or other public amenities).

Indianapolis’ Univgov only worked because schools were not included

The Univgov created in Indianapolis in 1970 may have only gone forward because it didn’t unite all local governments; it intentionally left out school districts.

The celebrated unified government, or “Unigov,” law brought together about a dozen communities in Marion County into a single large city in 1970. The idea was to put a bigger, more powerful Indianapolis onto the national map, simplify city services, and grow the city’s tax base. Indianapolis was not the only city in the country to merge with its surrounding county at that time—but it was the only one to explicitly leave schools out of the deal…

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated. At the time, a majority of the region’s African American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar said. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. Senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.” Lugar said he knew the 162-page Unigov bill would die in the Indiana General Assembly if schools were included. But he still thinks the merger was worth it, despite the effects it has had on schools…

Unigov’s legacy for Indiana education is mixed at best, but neither Lugar nor Cierzniak think a future Marion County school district merger—one way some scholars say segregation can be reduced—is likely. Township districts have grown considerably, and the state legislature has heard district consolidation plans over the years that have repeatedly failed.

Uniting metropolitan governments is a difficult task, primarily for reasons like this: wealthier, whiter, often suburban residents do not often want to share their resources – particularly schools – with those who are not as wealthy and white. When the middle-class and above look for places to live, they often prioritize the school district and if it has a record of higher performance, will fight to keep others out. These wealthier residents want their tax dollars, especially those based on their better housing values, to go to their children and community. And the white-black divide is often the most difficult line to cross in such situations.

As another recent example, see the case of when Ferguson, Missouri students were given the chance to leave their unaccredited school district. Some parents in the new school district do not react well.

Wealthier kids go to nearby schools; poorer kids travel further

Living in a poorer neighborhood means the resident children travel further to go to school:

Julia Burdick-Will found it was actually children in affluent neighborhoods who stayed close to home for school. In lower-income neighborhoods, kids in search of better options dispersed to dozens of other schools, often commuting alone for miles.

In Chicago neighborhoods with a median household income of more than $75,000, most students attended one of two or three schools. But when the neighborhood median income dropped to less than $25,000, students dispersed to an average of 13 different schools…

In affluent neighborhoods almost no one traveled 4 miles to school; the average commute was about 1.7 miles. But in disadvantaged neighborhoods, the average commute for children was 2.7 miles, with 25 percent of the kids traveling more than 4 miles. Ten percent of the low-income kids traveled more than 6 miles…
In low-income neighborhoods the problem isn’t just access, Burdick-Will said, but the potential social costs of traveling far across the city every day, possibly alone—costs that don’t apply to similarly achieving students in higher income neighborhoods.

An interesting paradox. Typically, wealth means mobility: they can seek out opportunities far and near, move to new locations when need by, afford the transportation costs. We imagine poorer residents stuck in neighborhoods with little opportunity to leave – and evidence from Robert Sampson in Great American City suggests even when afforded the opportunity to leave, many poor residents turn to similar poor locations.

Yet, public schools are one of the more local institutions in the United States. People move to neighborhoods and communities for the quality of their schools. The majority of property taxes go to local schools. Local school board officials are often elected and want to shape their local institutions. Community events are often held in these schools. They are a source of pride if the schools do well, a source of concern if they are not doing well.

Given that, it makes sense that Burdick-Will would suggest it is a burden for kids to go further for school. And that burden is on top of the other obstacles children in poorer neighborhoods face.