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Bad News for School Budgets When Retirees Outnumber Students

Tingley-021 color webTwo years into my first superintendency the school board decided to embark on a building project, the first for the district in many years.  Besides adding elementary classrooms, the project included tearing down the old high school gym and building a new, modern facility with a large stage at one end as well as new locker rooms and weight rooms.  The old gym was over 50 years old and was actually smaller than regulations required to host sectional competitions.

Because I didn’t know any better, I thought the best place to present the project for the first time would be the local senior citizens center after their monthly dinner.  The senior center was packed that evening, and as they were finishing up their coffee and pie, I got my PowerPoint presentation ready to roll.  I was sure that seniors, above all people, would support the project because they understood the value of education in a democracy.  In addition, some of them had grandchildren in the schools.

Ten minutes into the presentation it became clear that it would take more than a little pie to sweeten up this audience.  Some who had attended the local schools as students said that the buildings were good enough for them 50 years ago and they ought to be good enough for kids today.  Others said that they already paid for their own kids’ education and parents today should pay for their kids.  Still others said that they didn’t understand why education cost so much more these days than it used to.  Finally, one old gentleman towards the front summed it all up.   “Listen, girlie,” he said, “a lot of us are on a fixed income and can’t pay any more school taxes.  Enough said.”

Well, besides having to listen to my board members call me “girlie” for the next few months, I had to admit that I learned something, however painful, that evening.  I had seriously misjudged the community’s retirees in terms of their attitudes towards local education. 

VotingEducation Week reports that according to the census, seniors currently outnumber students in more than 900 counties across the United States.  Predictions are that by the middle of this century people 65 and older will outnumber people 17 and under as they currently do in Europe and Japan.  School districts required to put their budgets up for vote in their communities will find that they will have to address the issues and attitudes of this older block of voters just as my district had to.

While seniors, like all citizens, add to the tax base of a community, it turns out that they tend to favor lower taxes and spending on schools, according to professor Deborah Fletcher of Miami University of Ohio.  This development, of course, has prompted many districts to try to increase senior interest and involvement in schools.  In my district, for example, we instituted grandparents’ breakfasts and invited seniors to music program rehearsals.  We recruited seniors as classroom volunteers, and we gave free senior passes to sports activities.  In my budget presentations before the vote, I often spoke about how strong schools increased property values.  Still, as a 2010 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research found, “the higher the proportion of seniors in a community, the lower the support for public school funding, regardless of how deep their roots went in the community.”

The building project referendum didn’t pass the first time around even with almost 90% state aid, but a scaled back version passed the second time.  We learned that we could, in fact, gain some retirees’ support, but we had to show how kids benefitted from school taxes and we had to demonstrate that we knew how to be frugal.  Still, we didn’t convince all senior voters, especially those who were first in line to vote when the polls opened.  As the retiree population increases in school districts, it will create yet another challenge for school funding in states where citizens vote on the school budget.

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