Politics in the schoolyard

With $2.2 billion on the line, political forces on both sides of the penny sales-tax hike are biting and scratching for the slightest advantage. In the resulting fracas, uninitiated participants such as George P. Joseph Jr. often get bruised, while old hands like Richard Schwartz stand back and look for the slightest weakness. Joseph was winding up his anti-sales tax spiel on Sept. 15 at Gotha Middle School, when he noticed someone was gesturing for him to stop. Having thought he cleared his speech with the school principal, Joseph was surprised, but relented, despite the abruptness of the conclusion to his closed-circuit broadcast to parents, students and school officials gathered for the school open house. Joseph, a retired business executive, says he was even more surprised when he was asked to leave and escorted to the exit. "I was really surprised. It's a public school. It's a public referendum. They were greatly disturbed with what I had to say," Joseph says. As a result, Moore shouldn't count on Joseph for future public speaking engagements on behalf of the group. "I was just trying to do a public service because I have a concern," he says. "I don't feel like getting escorted by the Gestapo." Asked to explain Joseph's ouster, April Podnar, spokesperson for the school district, says the anti-tax message lasted much longer than the pro-tax comments of Principal Lou Stanley. And insisting he left freely after shaking hands with a school official, Podnar questions Joseph's account of leaving the building. "That's not our style," she says. While Joseph was put off by his treatment, Christina Moore, vice chairman of Citizens Opposed to the Sales Tax (COST) says his experience, while extreme, was only one example of the treatment of her committee by school officials. In fact, Moore says the reactions of school officials asked to include COST speakers in open houses and other functions held throughout the district varied "from very accommodating and being allowed to speak to being very hostile." Clearly, the Orange County Public Schools favor the proposed penny sales-tax hike, which would bring in about $1 billion over 10 years for capital improvements. Formal endorsements have been made by the county Classroom Teachers Association, Council of PTAs and PTSAs, and Educational Support Personnel Association, according to a recent press release from Common Cents, the pro-tax political-action committee. Nonetheless, school officials insist they've tried to work with anti-tax campaigners. "We've been bending over backward," says Podnar. "We wanted to do this right." But COST officials say the district has taken pains to favor the opposition. "We've had to rant and rave just to get parity, where Common Sense knows about everything ahead of time," Moore says. Also Moore says school officials have continually changed the rules, leaving tax supporters with an unfair advantage. "It sort of changes everyday how they can one-up us," she says. To clarify the district's position, Joseph Mittiga, Smith's new communications director, advised principals that "passive distribution" would be allowed. In other words, COST and pro-tax people would be allowed to distribute leaflets from tables set up in the schools, but barred from confronting people. Beyond distributing information, school principals were directed to allow anti-tax advocates equal, but no better, footing. Whenever a principal or PTA official wanted to pitch the tax, the opposition was to be allowed equal time. Otherwise no anti-tax speech was to be allowed. Based on the "passive distribution" directive, David Magee, principal at Piedmont Lakes Middle School, refused to allow Moore to speak at the school's open house. "This is not a platform for debate. It's an open house for our school," he says. Rather than allow Moore to speak, Magee acknowledged that he decided to refrain from his plan to add his support during his closed-circuit comments. Also Magee says Moore failed to provide him with advanced notification and leafleted the parking lot afterward, in violation of the passive distribution rule. "There was no advanced knowledge. It was strictly strong arm," Magee says. "It was just the way it was handled." But Moore, a veteran of anti-tax initiatives, accused the district of returning to tricks used in past elections. "They've been told numerous times not to play politics," she says. Conversely, Podnar says COST exaggerated its problems for political gain: "They're trying very hard to get someone to listen to them." While COST and pro-tax advocates engage in politics as usual, Richard Schwartz, a local political consultant, questions the county election office's decision to expect voters to provide the postage for delivery of the ballots. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a poll tax," says Schwartz, who insisted he was unaffiliated with COST. "A poll tax is simply a way to keep people from voting. This is simply good, ol' boy Southern politics again." While such an investment seems inconsequential to most, Schwartz says it would be an effective disincentive to poorer people who forsake mailing bills to save money. "The person at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale is most likely to vote against the tax," Schwartz says, while, affluent voters, those more able to afford the tax hike, will take advantage of the convenience. Also Schwartz says officials who have cited the tax savings of a mail-in election are misguided. "Taxpayers' money should not be an issue when it comes to people voting. That's not what democracy's about," he says. Maybe not, but in politics, winning becomes all that really matters.
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