Dear members of City Council and fellow citizens:
We are writing this letter in response to the Fiscal Year 2015 budget decisions made during the June 9 Oak Ridge City Council meeting. The Council’s overwhelming vote to maintain property tax rates at the same rate they have held steady at since 2009 may bode well for the short-term pocketbooks of our residents, but the long-term results are disconcerting and disheartening for many.
City Council is alienating the tax base that it needs to nurture. The young professionals, business owners, and families with school-aged children who once flocked to this city but now trickle must be heard by Council. These families have the disposable income to spend in Oak Ridge stores, and will pay the property taxes for decades to come that will keep this city viable. Yet at this Council meeting, our voices were not truly heard.
The argument that we continue to hear is that “our schools have plenty of money” and that the schools “need to learn to live within their budget.” The Oak Ridge Schools have proven that they can do this, but what is the cost of this attitude? How does this foster a strong relationship with not only the schools and their employees, but the families and students? How can the Schools continue to maintain excellence without, at the very least, inflationary and cost of living increases, when really it takes much more?
Here are some truths that we have uncovered, using the budget presentation supplied by Dr. Bruce Borchers. We know that ultimately the School Board will approve how funds are allocated and any reductions.
FALLACY No. 1—The property tax increase proposed by the Schools is the amount needed to pay for digital devices for all Oak Ridge students.
THE TRUTH—If all talk of digital devices and the positions needed to support the devices were stripped from the budget discussion, a property tax increase of .22 would still be needed in order to MAINTAIN our education system, while permitting a 2 percent cost of living increase (which all other city employees are receiving this year).
FALLACY No. 2—Teaching positions are being taken away to pay for digital devices.
THE TRUTH—The proposed budget actually created ADDITIONAL positions, including additional teachers, and did not specify any tax funds to pay for devices. Grants and private funding are being researched to pay for devices.
FALLACY No. 3—Oak Ridge Schools have plenty of money, they just need to manage it better.
THE TRUTH—The Schools budget (allocation from the city) has been flatlined since FY12. You cannot continue to offer the same services, year after year, on a flatlined budget while mandatory expenses continue to rise due to new requirements, inflation, and other increases that cannot be controlled by the Schools.
FALLACY No. 4—We raise property taxes every time the Schools need money.
THE TRUTH—The last property tax increase was in 2009, and yes, the School System justified the need for this increase, not City Council. At that time the Council said “What we do for one side of the house (schools), we do for the other (city employees).” That seems reasonable. That year, city employees also benefitted from a pay raise. We agree that it was wise to hold the tax rate steady during the recession. This year, city employees will receive an increase but not our teachers without additional funding. Where is the reciprocation?
We do hope that one day sales tax revenues will materialize. While we are banking our hopes on several large projects that are in process, we do believe that things are going to come to fruition soon. Each of us wants that. But will it be too late?
There remains one answer that we have known since our town was created: Invest in our schools, and we will attract the population we need. And no, that does not mean give the schools the minimal amount necessary for the schools to function. That gives us AVERAGE schools, and that is where Oak Ridge is heading without further investment. We need to maintain GREAT schools to insure our city keeps moving forward—the kind of schools that our town’s forbearers would proudly send their children too. This is the tradition of Oak Ridge; please do not let it diminish. Please do not let mixed priorities and lack of vision take this away from our community and from our future, our children!
While the undersigned are responsible for the content of this letter, please know that there are many, many Oak Ridge residents who agree with its content and implications. We encourage residents to copy this letter in its entirety and send it to City Council to show their support. We ask that City Council prioritize the School System, not just with its words, but with its votes. We ask that City Council show faith in the elected Board of Education that has vetted the proposed FY15 Budget options. We stand with them.
“Say Yes! Oak Ridge Schools”
Other concerned citizens