Bill Luton may still be an elected member of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools Board of Education, but his focus and priorities seem to be elsewhere.
Luton, who is running for the 1st District House seat in the N.C. Legislature, was a no-show at last week’s special board meeting called to discuss an endorsement for the sales tax referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot in Pasquotank County. Luton said he was attending to other obligations already on his calendar. Also, he has gone on record opposing the referendum — an incredible position considering his obligations as a school board member.
If approved, the quarter-cent sales tax would raise about a million dollars a year to fund capital projects needed for local education. Two-thirds of the revenue would be earmarked for Pasquotank County’s public schools, while the remaining third would be allocated to College of The Albemarle.
County schools have about $19 million in unfunded capital needs, while COA has another two million worth of projects. Both have about zero chance of seeing those needs met with help from Raleigh. Consequently, Pasquotank County commissioners had two choices: Let local schools crumble, old vehicles fall to pieces and other needs go un-met; or, take steps to raise money to build, fix and buy the things to ensure local students are educated in up-to-date buildings and are transported in safe vehicles.
Wary of the public’s distaste for a property tax increase, however, commissioners settled on the local sales tax referendum, in effect putting the matter in the hands of the voters. Even doing that in the current political climate carries risks, but it at least gives voters the final say, up or down, on whether they want to support their schools.
Additionally, the sales tax option spreads the burden of paying for education needs beyond the borders of Pasquotank County to consumers who shop and do business in the county. And it provides cover to many products that would not be affected by the tax, such as grocery items, gasoline, motor vehicles, prescription medications and some farm supplies.
Accordingly, with such an important issue in the hands of voters, it’s incumbent on those who are most responsible for meeting the needs of local education to seek public support for the referendum. Qualifying for that duty are the elected leaders and appointees who govern local public schools and College of the Albemarle.
That would make last week’s special meeting a high priority for elected members of the ECPPS board of education. And for the six board members who were present, it was a priority. They demonstrated their commitment to local schools by voting to endorse the sales tax hike.
Because of Luton’s absence and dissent, however, the school board cannot claim a united front on what is clearly among the most significant education funding issues it will ever face. Luton, apparently, has other priorities that come before his obligations as a school board member.
Explaining his reasons for opposing the referendum, Luton said he preferred not to burden middle-class families with a tax increase. Also, he claims, the lack of adequate school funding is the fault of broken government and bad policy in Raleigh, problems he apparently believes should be fixed by the Legislature.
These explanations, however, don’t meet the litmus test of responsible local education leadership.
First, it’s the obligation of school officials to accomplish the goals they set for education — including asking for money when its needed to meet those obligations. Support for the referendum asks the voters to help school officials meet the goals they have set for education. Does that mean Luton is no longer on board with those objectives?
Secondly, it’s unrealistic to believe the Legislature is going to rescue Pasquotank County schools anytime soon, if ever. What’s more, the Legislature does not build, repair or update local schools — that’s a local responsibility. Both explanations, for missing the meeting and for his opposition to the referendum, fall short on the legitimacy meter, especially considering the impact on local education that the sales tax referendum would have. Luton’s motivations also raise the troubling question of where his priorities are.
He was elected to serve the interests of local school children, but his actions on the sales tax reflect otherwise.
Certainly, a vote supporting the tax would have put him in the crosshairs of Bob Steinburg, his Republican, anti-tax opponent in the House race. So, falling in with other school board members would risk giving Steinburg a political wedge to use against him. As it turned out, Steinburg targeted the issue anyway, criticizing Luton for “ducking” the meeting and for not publicly opposing the tax — which Luton has done.
Political compromises and risks are part of running for and serving in public office. But Luton appears to be compromising the obligations of his current elective office for a shot at another.