Education under attack in Portsmouth

America’s first suicide car bomber wasn’t fighting capitalism, globalization, or even MTV. He blew himself up over property taxes for education.

In the worst act of domestic terrorism prior to Oklahoma City, on May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe, a disgruntled school board treasurer, wired up the Bath, Michigan consolidated school with half a ton of dynamite and destroyed a building full of students. Then he drove his car, packed with explosives and shrapnel, into the middle of rescue workers and blew himself up. All told, 38 children and 5 rescuers were killed and dozens more injured.

He was upset because his tax rate was too high, you see.

And although he had tried to do things the right way first – join the school board, run for town office – the sad truth was that not enough people agreed with him. So he resolved to cut his taxes by any means necessary.

On August 19, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, a bare quorum of 1,284 voters (in a town with a population of nearly 20,000) used a Financial Town Meeting to reduce their property taxes by cutting $1.1 million from the school budget. They based the size of this cut not on any analysis of line items, but rather on the tax rate they sought.

The self-styled tax rebels of the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC) showed no mercy that morning, refusing every compromise proposed by Save Our Schools (SOS) supporters. Despite differences of less than 100 votes for more reasonable cuts, the PCC saw no evenly divided group and no opportunity for common ground. In a last ditch effort, SOS walked out of the meeting, but failed to break the quorum. Flush with their success, the PCC followers went on to slash an additional 632K from the Town budget, just for good measure.

Their tax rates were too high, you see.

Now, please don’t think I’m just labeling those with whom I disagree “terrorists.” I leave that rhetorical move to the folks who invented “No Child Left Behind” and other unfunded mandates. But I am calling attention to a fundamental “un-sanity” (to quote the late education theorist Neil Postman) in this pair of extremist actions.

In an illuminating letter to the editor in last week’s local paper, the Sakonnet Times, one PCC apologist stated their position succinctly: “I think I have paid my fair share for the past 15 years by not having children in the schools. Did anyone take a survey on how many property owners have no children in the schools?”

Indeed. Should we also take surveys on how many people had no house fires? Or who required no visits from the police department? For all the rhetoric about reining in teacher contracts and protecting seniors on a fixed income, this was just, at base, an attack on public education as an institution.

Neither Andrew Kehoe nor the PCC appear to grasp the basics of the social contract. We fund schools not because we have children in the system, but rather because an educated electorate is essential to democracy. And any rational member of the electorate would agree we should determine funding not by slashing blindly aiming for an arbitrary tax rate, but rather through a reasoned cost-benefit analysis.

Just such a process took place. The duly elected school committee drafted a budget. The Portsmouth Town Council had already worked with the committee to cut $1.2 million before the PCC intervened. Another 1.1 million reduction is not a return to “reasonable territory,” as the PCC claims. The finance subcommittee struggled unsuccessfully at their meeting last week to identify nickel-and-dime reductions, and all the cuts discussed would have direct impact on students.

I believe that the true majority of Portsmouth supports both education and the democratic process. There is real common ground here; we all want fair taxes. But high property tax rates are only a symptom – we need to approach this at the appropriate level, state and federal governments which persist in an antiquated system of education funding. If Idaho can do it, why not Rhode Island?

I also believe the true majority of Portsmouth is more interested in preserving our schools than saving a hundred bucks or so on taxes. I have already donated my “rebate” to Portsmouth United for Education and hope anyone reading this letter might do the same. Not everyone could make it to the tent meeting, but we can still send the PCC a powerful message.

For the sake of Portsmouth’s children – and America’s first democracy – let us not allow a disgruntled minority who could not accomplish their goals through representative government succeed in their attack on our schools.