Pitching the Meals Tax to Minorities and the Poor

The newly renovated Varina High School.
Disparity: The newly renovated Varina High School.

by James A. Bacon

I guess the “it’s for the sweet little children” mantra isn’t working. Proponents of the Henrico County meals tax have upped the ante. Now a pro-tax advocacy group, Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids, is appealing to class and racial resentments of residents in the east end of the county, who are more likely to be poor and black than in the affluent western end of the county.

According to today’s Times-Dispatch, Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids has distributed a flier with pictures of four school children and text that says, “The side of the county they live on shouldn’t determine how much opportunity they are given,” and, “YES on the meals tax means a few pennies that can improve ALL our schools.”

While the flier does not explicitly say the county is short-changing East End schools and does not make an overt appeal to race, it taps into well-aired complaints over the past year by African Americans in eastern Henrico about disparities in the distribution of school resources and the disciplining of white and black children, as described here and here.

This pitch should be condemned by meals-tax advocates who have refrained from making such irresponsible appeals. It is reckless and wrong in so many ways.

What disparity in resources? There is no evidence that eastern Henrico schools get fewer resources than west end schools. Indeed, a case could just as easily be made that East End schools receive preferential treatment. A May article in the T-D noted the following:

  • The School Board had recently approved the addition of 144 children to the federally funded pre-school program.
  • The school district is using a $16.4 million federal grant to provide incentive pay at eight eastern Henrico schools to help retain teachers.
  • When the school board increased the number of students per class because of budget challenges, 10 eastern Henrico schools were exempt from the belt tightening!
  • At the time the article was written, Varina High School had completed a $28 million renovation; three other East End schools had  recently undergone rehabs as well.

The controversy isn’t that eastern Henrico schools don’t get equal resources, it’s that residents claim they need more than equal resources. As the T-D quoted school board Chairman and Fairfield District representative Lamont Bagby: “We don’t need equal resources because a lot of the schools, especially in the Fairfield District, need more resources because they have more challenges.”

More resources won’t fix all problems. East End residents have complained that black students receive more suspensions than white students. (Blacks comprise 36% of the student population but receive 75% of the suspensions.) Other gripes: Blacks are less likely to be admitted to gifted programs, and blacks suffer from a “culture of low expectations.” Those problems require an administrative remedy, not a monetary remedy.

The meals tax does not address disparities. Henrico school spokesman Andy Jenks told the T-D that county officials have not justified the tax as a way to reduce differences in school performance.  Rather, the county maintains that meals tax revenue would support capital improvements and teacher pensions countywide.

T-D reporter Ted Strong asked Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids spokeperson Kristina Hagen if she thought it accurate to imply that meals tax revenue would be used to reduce the racial performance gap. Her lame response: “Continued and severe cuts to the entire Henrico County school system would do nothing to address disparity.”

The meals tax is regressive. The supreme irony is that the meals tax is regressive. County officials justify the tax on the grounds that the alternative would be to raise the real estate property tax. Question: How many poor, East End residents eat out at Hardee’s or McDonalds versus how many own their own homes?

Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids asserts the tax is “only pennies,” says Sidney Gunst, the real estate developer who has spear-headed the opposition. “But the parents only make nickels!” The Richmond Association of Realtors (RAR), the lead supporter of Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids, has the most to gain from blocking a property tax increase, he notes.  It takes unbelievable chutzpah for the West End group to pitch the meals tax over the property tax on the basis that it would help poor, black East End residents.

RAR board members need to rein in their renegade advocacy group or Realtors could suffer major blow back. Disguising raw self interest by pretending to act in the interest of racial minorities and the poor is about as low as you get get.

For the record: County officials may be touting the meals tax but, as far as I know, they have not endorsed or affiliated themselves with this noxious flier.

Neither Kristina Hagen nor Andy Jenks responded to my request for an interview.

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6 responses to “Pitching the Meals Tax to Minorities and the Poor”

  1. yep, I AGREE. that is OVER THE LINE>

    while it might be true that the kids in the east need more services –

    you need to show that as something already happening not something that will a happen if the meals tax is approved.

    if that’s the tactics they are scurrilous. … and I predict if voters are paying attention – will have the opposite effect .. as people can see through these kids of tactics.

    I think Henrico would have been a whole lot more righteous if they pointed out that the have significant unfunded liabilities with regard to pensions that need to be addressed and stay out of the race/class equity issue.

    by saying that the eastern section of the county needs “help”, the bring into question their current actions.

    OTOH – without question, Henrico pinches the dollar compared to many other counties, no question and I do wonder just how high the bar has to be set to satisfy the fiscal conservatives and the anti-govt types to their right.

  2. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    It sounds like Henrico is currently not providing needed services to the East End.Do I smell a civil rights suit here?

  3. yes.. that was my first thought. They’re already not providing needed resources or at least trying to – AND they’re implying that it won’t get better if the meals tax is not approved?

    wow! I cannot believe those who make this argument are so stupid!

    I don’t vote in Henrico but if I did – this would change my vote from a yes to a no.

    are people really this stupid?

  4. Breckinridge Avatar

    The east end is where the precincts vote 70-80 percent Democratic. The assumption is that Democrats will be turning out in higher percentages Nov. 5 and the pro-meals tax people want to give that part of the county a stronger motivation to move on down the ballot and vote yes on their issue too. They sure won’t vote for it if they think it will be spent mostly in the west end. But it is a dangerous argument on many fronts, including those mentioned already.

  5. Stories like these remind me why our society needs to work harder to move away from a dependency mindset to an empowerment mindset. There is a lot of wealth in this state, and much more coming. We should work towards empowering folks to move away from government programs.

  6. The basic problem is the kids. without additional education services, they will grow up like their parents – on entitlements or incarcerated.

    It’s a cycle – and it’s a frustrating one because if we walk away, when they are kids, they grow up with an even bigger adverse impact on society and taxpayers.

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