(Republication) Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul! (And Tax The Crap Out Of Them.)

February 4, 2019

 

Editor's Note: Superintendent Jan Harris and the Dade Board of Education convene this afternoon at 6 p.m. for a special called meeting to pass a resolution about amending the 65/5 school tax exemption. The Planet will duly report on that. Meanwhile, here is an opinion piece I wrote in November 2013, the last time a school superintendent took up the matter of nixing 65/5. It came out after the November county commission meeting that year, at which 65/5 was the featured subject of discussion.

 

The superintendent then was Shawn Tobin, who had the year before convinced the board of education to yank all funding from the Dade County Library. For decades, the board of ed had shared local support of the library with the other two local taxing agencies, the county and city commissions. But there was no legal contract enforcing the arrangement, and in 2012--though the B of E gets exponentially more of your tax dollar than either of the two local gummints--the board at Tobin's request ducked out from under, zeroing out every penny of its library funding overnight.

 

It was a crippling blow from which the library has never fully recovered. It is why it is still closed on Mondays. It is also a continuing stain on the integrity of the B of E. What the hell kind of board of education assassinates the local library?  

  

Superintendent Tobin was not only a profoundly, aggressively uneducated man but also an inept administrator, and the board sent him packing shortly after he took up the anti-65/5 banner. It first hired Cheri Swader to replace him and then, when she retired, the current super, Dr. Harris. Both led the board with calmer, wiser styles.

 

But never has the B of E undone the damage it did under Tobin's tutelage. While both the county and city have increased their support to the library to fill the hole the B of E left, the board of education has coughed up a little here, a little there, but after seven years can still not bring itself to resume its 2012 level of funding--which was, for crying out loud, $38,000.  

 

Which leaves the B of E and Dr. Harris now as they ask Dade to reconsider 65/5 in a similar place as Tobin and his board were in 2013: Who will support you in your fight for civilization when you go around killing libraries? I republish it now to ask the board that question. 

 

Now, for those who haven't been around the county that long, by "He-Don't-Come-Around-Here-No-More" I meant John Deffenbaugh, the then Georgia House representative, who was scheduled to speak at the county commission meeting (and didn't show up). "T. Bagger" = Ben Brandon, the former county executive whose brainchild 65/5 was. And "Mr. Education" is, of course, none other than the man who put Dade in national headlines for banning a National Award-winning youth novel at the high school, former Superintendent Tobin his own self. 

My darlings!  If irony were acorns, and your narrator a chipmunk, after the November Dade County Commission meeting my little jaw sacs would be stuffed full enough to last the winter.  Even one of those long, blizzardy ones you read about in the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, that happen after the old Indian hobbles into the trading post and warns, “Heap big snow coming” – heck, I’d still be spitting out hulls come March. 

 

The star of Thursday’s agenda was Dade’s duly and newly elected voice in Atlanta, whom we shall not name here except by the colorful descriptive phrase used more and more often about him locally: Mr. He-Don’t-Come-Around-Here-No-More.

 

He-Don’t-Come was to speak and be spoken to about the Board of Education’s proposed modification of the so-called 65/5 school tax exemption, because this would require legislation at the state level. But Reader, can you guess how Rep. He-Don’t-Come started the evening?

 

Bingo. Pleading a last-minute prior engagement, or something, He-Don’t-Come didn’t come.  But the other players were lined up in the wings, shuffling their notes and rarin’ to go, so the show went by God on and the speakers spoke their pieces whether or not there was anyone there to listen but the commission and members of the ravenin’ press.

 

(Who were not unappreciative.  They say we small-town journalists are under-rewarded, but not only did I recently receive from a friendly interviewee a free T-shirt with a fart joke on front, Thursday night afforded harmless entertainment enough to keep a girl through Christmas.)

 

First, speaker No. 1, whom we’ll call here Mr. T. Bagger: T. Bagger was Dade’s chief executive for four rollicking years in which the foolishness of electing people to government who don’t believe in it was made flesh. During his term, Mr. B. almost managed to restore Dade County to primordial chaos, though not so much as a matter of policy as from the irritation factor. I’m probably exaggerating when I say Mr. B’s in-your-face leadership style would have inspired b-slaps from Mother Teresa, but not when I say he couldn’t pass around doughnuts without starting a fistfight. I was there. The man conducted budget hearings like Caligula! 

 

Mr. B had come tonight to defend 65/5. It was, after all, the issue he had ridden into office. Though then, of course, he had gone off home to the compound and left the damn thing there, noisily huffing up oats and pooping in the schoolyard, while the remaining politicos tore out their hair fretting how to get rid of it without seeming pro-tax. (It’s why most of them have bald spots.)

 

Now, ladies and gentlemen, let us move to the other corner, to speaker No. 2:  Mr. Education. Yes!  That camo-wearin’, “yo”-callin’, ex-Army schools superintendent who campaigned for ESPLOST, then forgot to put it on the ballot, was now at the meeting calling for a new referendum, this one to amend 65/5. The guy who OK’d $400,000 for sooper-dooper security in a town where the worst school invasions come from swarming ladybugs, but couldn’t find $38K for the library, marched right up to the podium and quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes:

 

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

 

You want irony, my dears, I give you Mr. Education riding into town to proclaim himself the savior of civilization, fresh from gunning down the Dade County Library. It don’t get no better than this, Earl!

 

As for Mr. E. quoting literature, interviewed earlier (during his maiden-voyage book-banning pogrom, BTW), he wasn’t able to name one of the Canterbury Tales, not even the Miller’s Tale, which is mostly a fart joke. 

 

So I expect somebody Googled the tax quote for him. But here’s a further irony:  Me, when I think “Oliver Wendell Holmes,” I think “Chambered Nautilus,” as in:

 

“Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!”

 

 And stately mansions are what 65/5 is all about. It exempts people 65 and older from paying school taxes on five acres and their houses, no matter how stately. 

 

Mr. Education wants to reverse that. He thinks people who come to Dade to build $500,000 mansions can afford to pay school tax. But T. Bagger says making them pay would be against everything the Founding Fathers wanted for America. 

 

Mr. B. says he conducts Constitutional-law-slash-target-practice sessions at his shooting range (does that make anybody else go “EEE?”) and he and the boys have concluded between BLAMs that the whole purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to protect rich people’s right not to pay taxes.

 

What I take away from all this, besides the irony, is the utter uselessness of Big Ideas in government. We need government for practical things we can’t achieve individually – for most of us, roads, law enforcement, schools; for some who need not be named here, clean water piped into their isolated armed compounds. 

 

With limited revenues, our sitting county commissioners supply us these things through a responsive, practical, push-pull democracy which you, too, would admire if you spent as much time staring deeply into their bald spots as I do. Whereas when T. Bagger with his grand notions called the shots, county business pretty much shut down while everybody gritted teeth and tried not to slug him.

 

It’s the same with 65/5 and Mr. E. Call me a commie but I’d rather hear Dade County described as having good schools than as a great place to dodge property taxes. Saving civilization is a wonderful idea.

 

But maybe if the Board of Ed wants some help with that, it should redefine “civilization” to include books, learning and libraries.  Until then – well!

We’ll see how far through the heap-big snows we can all live on irony.

 

--Robin Ford Wallace

robinfordwallace@tvn.net

 

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