HOW, specifically, will this city's children suffer if voters reject the Toledo Public Schools' income-tax proposal? That question will determine the outcome of the tax vote this May, yet district leaders are curiously reluctant to address it. Until they do, the ballot plan won't stand a chance.
The school system wants district voters to approve an unprecedented 0.75 percent tax on earned income (pensions, unemployment benefits, and investment income would be exempt). If you make $30,000 a year, you'll pay $225 of that in the new tax.
District officials say the tax would raise about $18.1 million a year to help close a budget gap that they project at $30 million next school year and as much as $70 million in the following year. By comparison, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell's proposal for a temporary increase in the city income tax rate from 2.25 to 2.5 percent would raise $7.5 million a year; the city's current general-fund deficit is an estimated $48 million.
These are all just big numbers, without much grounding in everyday reality. The school district needs to show parents and other voters, in grim particularity, how the district would have to cut its budget without the new revenue the tax would raise.
Which schools would close? How many teachers would be laid off? Which programs and services would be curtailed or eliminated? Heaven forbid, would high school football and basketball take a hit? What evidence does the district offer to show it is operating as efficiently as it can?
School officials don't want to answer such questions, even as they pledge to make major reductions in spending. To talk about specific possible cuts, they say, would make it appear they are threatening voters.
But unless voters feel threatened - unless they are convinced that the failure of the tax measure would make things unacceptably worse for themselves and for the pupils who attend city schools - they will vote no. That shouldn't be so hard to understand.
Of course school officials are correct that all taxpayers, not just those with children in public schools, benefit economically and socially from an educated citizenry. But bland platitudes won't win votes. Neither will emotional appeals to do it for the kids, assertions that the district had no choice but to seek the income tax, or plaintive reminders that the school system has not asked for new taxes in nine years.
And neither will pleas, however accurate, that city schools need new money because of slashes in state aid and depressed local property tax collections. As voters can attest, things are tough all over.
Toledo Board of Education member Larry Sykes voted last week against placing the tax plan on the ballot, saying school officials had not provided data he sought on the district's finances, charter schools, legal expenses, and food service program. If a school board member feels the district hasn't given him enough information to evaluate the merits of the tax measure, how are voters supposed to make a reasoned judgment?
School and city officials acknowledge that the presence of two income-tax proposals on the May 4 ballot will make it harder to win either of them. So far, the city has made a much more candid and compelling case for its tax proposal than the school system has made for its measure.
The district doesn't want to scare voters? If it wants its tax, it had better.