Special Tax Districts for City Schools?

Special tax districts to build public schools?
Photo credit: WAVY TV

Chesapeake Councilwoman Debbie Ritter has a crazy idea — why not let Chesapeake create special districts that allow property owners to tax themselves to fund school improvements in their district? Virginia localities can set up special tax districts to pay for utilities, transportation improvements, and even sand dredging, why not schools?

Here is her logic, as laid out by the Virginian-Pilot:

Ritter said she is requesting the change so the city has a way to pay for schools in the currently undeveloped Dominion Boulevard area off U.S. 17. The city is set to vote this month on the Dominion Boulevard Corridor Study, which maps out future land use on about 10,000 acres around Dominion Boulevard South, from the new Veterans Bridge south to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The tentative plan notes that new elementary and middle schools may be needed.

Ritter said she would “never consider imposing an additional tax on an already developed area of the city.”

“If you live in an area now, you will not be asked to be a part of the special taxing district,” Ritter said. What the city needs is a way to fund new infrastructure around the corridor “without imposing that on current residents and businesses.”

Interesting issue. As an abstract principle, I support the idea of letting people tax themselves for public projects they want — it beats dipping into public coffers and asking other taxpayers to share the cost. As a bonus under Ritter’s plan, the people of the Dismal Swamp area of Chesapeake might get their school built far more quickly than if they had to wait for the city to scrounge up the funds or issue city-wide bonds, which city-wide voters might reject.

But there is a potential downside. I can also envision a scenario in which affluent neighborhoods vote to tax themselves for new or renovated schools, then vote down city- or county-wide funding initiatives. Poor neighborhoods would be the losers.


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4 responses to “Special Tax Districts for City Schools?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    BR desperately needs some folks like Bosun to educate on how govt works…

    special tax districts are ONLY for NEW infrastructure , not operating expenses, salaries, maintenance, etc… so you’re gonna build fancy facilities but have all taxpayers pay for staffing and maintenance?

    Tax districts have to be agreed to by a majority of the land owners in that proposed district – usually implemented by the developer that owns the big parcel before it gets subdivided or else you need a majority of property owners agreeing to the higher tax.

    AND .. finally – who is going to loan the tax district residents the money to pay to build the school? Oh you say you want the county to go borrow it at their rate than pay it back from the higher tax district taxes – and you want to do this without the folks in the rest of the county agreeing to it?


    and this lady is an elected official who is speaking on behalf of the “government”.

    There ought to be a mandatory boot camp for newly elected officials in my view… to help them understand their role, responsibilities, and what they can’t do.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I agree with Larry that a special tax or service district for schools must be limited to capital costs only. It’s similar to a special assessment imposed in some states for new sidewalks or storm sewers. Operating costs must be paid from traditional sources including real estate and sales taxes, state aid and federal funding.

    When I lived in Nebraska, I saw new developments impose special taxes to fund public facilities. Only when the revenues exceeded the outlays did a city or town annex them. Different style of government, but instructive, at least to some degree.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Folks should also have a clear idea of what they SAY they WANT.

    There is no law that prevents people from joining together to build and operate their own school for their own kids …. and building that school to their specifications and staffing per their standards and operating it per their rules including who can go there or not.

    Such “academies” are not at all unusual in some places in the US and other countries including England where I think I’ve read about half the kids attend and it is considered by some to be a divided society of haves and have-nots on that basis.

    but you cannot very easily , essentially fund the construction and operation of de-facto private schools with public money, not for a lack of trying, though.

  4. That last paragraph of yours, JB, is not merely a “potential downside” but a near certain, fatal, flaw. I agree with LG’ s last point: “such academies” are called private schools, and that’s what people organize and run when the government doesn’t provide, or provides a crappy product. Why would people go forward with all that fundraising effort for a new-school tax district and then turn over the finished product to the very government that didn’t do its job in the first place?

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