Raise Baltimore County taxes to pay for new high schools

Op-ed: Baltimore County should raise property taxes to pay for new high schools.

Baltimore County has Maryland's second oldest inventory of schools behind Baltimore City. We don't drive cars that are 50 years old. We don't use 50-year-old appliances. We don't communicate or work using 50-year-old technology. Therefore, our students shouldn't be forced to learn in 50-year-old schools whose infrastructure is crumbling, halls and classrooms are overflowing, and mechanical systems are either outdated or non-existent.

At a recent Baltimore County Board of Education meeting, the future of four Baltimore County high schools hung in the balance. The county offered seemingly impressive sums of money to complete "partial renovations" to each school. Communities rarely say no to money, but this time they did — and for good, common-sense reasons. Renovations cost more than new school construction in the long run, they are more disruptive to school life than new construction, and they fail to adequately address increased school populations and modern learning environments.

Instead of a limited renovation, the Dulaney High School community is lobbying for a new high school — not only for Dulaney but for Landsdown, Patapsco and Woodlawn because every community deserves a flagship high school where children can truly achieve their full potential. And for those without children — or children in private schools — a strong education system drives economic growth by attracting businesses and companies to relocate or start up and by creating a more educated work force who will make more money and therefore contribute more in taxes.

Economists Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford and Ludger Woessmann and Jens Ruhose of the University of Munich, whose new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research takes a look at the financial return for states who invest in improving the quality of K-12 education, find that if all students in the U.S. could be brought up to basic mastery as defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the U.S. GDP would increase by $32 trillion, or 14.6 percent. A more aggressive approach that brings all students up to the average test scores of the highest-achieving states could boost GDP by $76 trillion over the next several decades. The authors note that in 2010, spending on K-12 education by states and localities amounted to only about 4 percent of the total GDP, suggesting that the economic growth afforded by improvements in education would certainly outweigh the cost.

And there's the rub: taxes. No one wants to pay more taxes — or do they? At that same Board of Education meeting, a member of the board stated that to build new schools, the county would either need to raise taxes or issue bonds, then dismissed the very notion that anyone would be willing to pay more in taxes to fund school construction. But he was wrong. Hands in the audience sprung up signaling that they would in fact be open to paying more. It was a powerful moment in the meeting — one that most likely went unnoticed, especially by those holding leadership positions.

But what if those hands in the audience that rainy Tuesday night are representative of a majority of citizens who would willingly invest in the construction of 21st century schools? On average, the construction of a new high school is estimated at $120 million. If the county property tax rate were increased from $1.1 per $100 to $1.4 per $100 (capping the increase at the first $1 million in property value), the county would realize an increase of nearly $250,000,000 — enough for two new high schools each year.

The increase for schools need not be permanent. It would stay in effect long enough to raise the funds to bring Baltimore County's school inventory into the 21st century. It should also be noted that new schools are much more energy and water efficient. They can, on average, save $100,000 a year in operating costs — money that could be used to hire more teachers, behavioral specialists and counselors.

It's a bold and forward thinking plan, one that promises a healthy return on investment. Too often lawmakers simply assume that people just don't want to pay more in taxes. Maybe they should consider asking a few. They may be surprised.

Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong lives in Timonium; she can be reached at bronwyn99@hotmail.com.

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