There was a joint governmental entities meeting last night that included county, school board, and city officials from Johnson County. The first topic on the agenda was affordable housing. I wanted to attend the meeting but could not. Here’s what I would have liked to say.
When I’ve written about why I don’t support the district’s bond proposal, I’ve focused mostly on my concerns about the specifics of the plan, and in particular the capacity expansions. I haven’t focused much on the proposal’s effect on the tax burden. That’s largely because I don’t view political issues from an anti-tax perspective; in general, I’d like to see more (and more progressive) taxation to support a higher level of social services, including education. It’s also true that I’m personally fortunate enough that I can afford the increase in taxes that will result from the bond proposal.
Not everyone is as fortunate, though. And it’s important to remember that the bond proposal will be funded by property taxes, which are not a progressive form of taxation. (And if SAVE is extended, those projects may eventually be funded using sales tax revenues, which are even less progressive.)
Our district does have an affordable housing problem. Proponents of the bond want you to know that our tax rate is low compared to that of other big Iowa school districts, but they don’t linger on the fact that our assessed values are some of the highest. Many people have a hard time finding local housing options they can afford. And the politically feasible solutions are all incremental; there is no quick fix.
If the bond proposal confined itself to demonstrable needs—for example, renovations to our older buildings, accessibility upgrades, and new capacity where it’s urgently needed—it would be easier to conclude that the benefits outweigh the incremental effect of making housing less affordable. (The effect would also be smaller.) But the worthy parts of the plan have been bundled with a set of capacity expansions that, according to the district’s own data, result in building 1,896 more seats than our enrollment projections show a need for even ten years from now—to the point where the price tag of the bond reached $191 million plus transaction costs and interest, which we’re told is the biggest bond proposal by far in Iowa’s history.
In response to that argument, bond proponents have argued that our enrollment projections are probably underpredicting growth. I agree that they almost certainly underpredict growth in some areas (mainly Coralville), though most of the excess seats are not in those areas. I also agree that enrollment projections seven or ten years out are not reliable. But saying “Don’t worry, our data is probably wrong!” is not a great argument for enacting a $191 million plan that includes capacity expansions that are seven years out on the timeline. It’s an argument for limiting the bond to first two or three years of projects and then re-assessing needs.
Addressing the problem of affordable housing doesn’t mean never supporting any tax increases or bond proposals. But it should at the very least mean taking seriously the need to justify each element of any major spending plan, especially one that will be paid for through property taxes. I don’t see how we’ve met that standard with this proposal.