Two years ago Miami-Dade County voters booted a once-popular county mayor and a veteran commissioner for having supported a property-tax hike. The margin of defeat was stunning, with almost 90 percent of those participating in the special recall election voting against the officeholders.
Recently, the same electorate (turning out in far higher numbers) fundamentally and overwhelmingly voted to increase property taxes by approving the Miami-Dade School Board bond referendum.
Cognitive dissonance? Not necessarily.
Some months ago when Superintendent Alberto Carvalho first approached me about pursuing a general-obligation bond issuance (funded by ad valorem tax collections) to address our school system’s construction and technology infrastructure needs, I was skeptical. I had worked with him since early this year and held discussions with administrators and community leaders regarding a tax-swap concept, which would have resulted in more revenues for the school system and lower property taxes for Miami-Dade County residents. This is an alternative that, incidentally, I still prefer.
However, it would require sign-off from the Legislature, and waiting until next year’s legislative session without guarantees would have been too risky.
Upon realizing that the bond referendum option was the most feasible of solutions for our massive deferred-maintenance schedule, I was still somewhat reticent. I considered that in recent years voters had unequivocally expressed their desire that governments do more with less and resoundingly rejected any notion of a tax hike.
The governed have astutely concluded that public officials at all levels have spent loosely for too long and that if belt-tightening is appropriate for their households, then those that control the purse strings must do the same. Moreover, our community was still reeling from the aforementioned period of political turmoil and instability. Nevertheless, results of the Nov. 6 election validated the superintendent’s bold initiative and offers us all some valuable lessons.
Proposed not imposed. Voters prefer to be asked. I have never understood why some elected officials consistently oppose allowing voters to decide matters for themselves by placing questions on the ballot.
Is a ballot question approach always practical or feasible? Of course not, but when major policy questions are at issue (i.e., taxes, major developments, etc.), letting the community decide for itself is never a bad idea.
Denying voters this opportunity conveys arrogance and fosters distrust of government. Residents should have a direct say in how public dollars are invested for the betterment of their communities. It may come as a surprise to some in the political class, but in my experience, voters are most often reasonable and judicious with their decisions.
Product quality. Like investors in the business world, voters want to invest in worthwhile endeavors. Tax increases for the purposes of funding obese bureaucracies and unsustainable public employee pension programs are unlikely to receive majority support. Carvalho and his team were wise to commit that all funds resulting from the bond issuance would go directly to maintenance, repairs, construction and technology for needy school facilities. Lasting infrastructure improvements will benefit the current generation of children and future ones, improving the quality of life in Miami-Dade.
Leadership matters. Voters will support the work and vision of public officials with proven track records of responsibility and reform. There’s no dispute — Carvalho and his team have earned the trust of the public, as well as the School Board, over the past four years. Student performance is up. Spending on bureaucracy and administration is down. Graduation rates have soared, and failing schools have been turned around.
The board is keenly focused on overseeing and improving the education of children while avoiding the distractions and drivel of the past.
Now our charge is to continue innovating and transforming a school system that in many ways remains built for the 20th century. Surely, the inflow of fresh funds will be accompanied by the temptation to become complacent. It cannot happen.
Taxpayers have given our collective work (students, parents, teachers, support staff, principals, administrators and public officials) a historic vote of confidence. Let us honor their support by continuing to build the most efficient and effective urban school district in America with the same urgency and discipline that we did before the election.
Carlos Curbelo is a member of the Miami-Dade School Board representing District 7.