Eating 4 Education
A Virginia city found a way to make a tax increase for its schools easy to swallow.
To see real leadership in action, our dysfunctional leaders in D.C. should drive down Interstate 81 to Roanoke, Va.
Roanoke's schools were taking multiple hits in late 2009. State funding—covering about half of the district's budget—was being cut again, and the end of federal stimulus money loomed. David Carson, chair of the school board, felt as if the schools were "headed off a cliff."
The community wanted to help. Roanoke's schools had been in bad shape. Fewer than 60 percent of students graduated. Most students were receiving free or reduced-priced lunches. Half the city's schools were not accredited. The city council, which provides the other half of the district's funding, targeted education as a high priority. In 2007, a superintendent search had reached out to a dynamic education leader, Rita Bishop, who dove in and sparked a turnaround. By 2009, the graduation rate was improving, and other results impressed the community.
But the fiscal storm threatened that progress. The cuts would mean the end of summer school, fewer teachers and textbooks, and larger class sizes. As city Finance Director Ann Shawver put it, "Shame on us if we don't support Dr. Bishop."
But finding a way to make up at least some of the funding loss was not going to be easy. Council member Court Rosen reviewed the limited options and landed on the city's prepared-meals tax. Despite being told that it would be "political suicide," he proposed a two-cent increase in the tax for two years to raise $4.4 million per year, covering about half of the state cuts. At the public hearing, restaurants and the hospitality industry opposed the increase, but no one else spoke against it, and the council passed it unanimously. Everyone recognized that "2 for 2" was only fiscal first aid, but it provided breathing room.
Typically, that would have been a decent public policy outcome. Some people win, some lose, the community gains. Time to move on to the next challenge.
But not for Chris Morrill, the newly arrived city manager. Morrill is widely recognized for inspiring collaboration, and he did not want the restaurants to be the losers. So Morrill and Joyce Waugh, who heads the Chamber of Commerce, put their heads together to see if they could "turn these lemons into lemonade," as Waugh put it.
What they came up with was "Eat for Education," or "E4E." The result of a partnership of the city, the Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, Downtown Roanoke, and the Roanoke Valley Hospitality Association, "E4E" is a campaign to make the tax increase as much of win-win as possible. The city smartly hired the public-relations firm that had represented the restaurants opposing the tax to help brand and promote E4E.
Nowadays, everyone is encouraged to "eat for education" in Roanoke's restaurants. The city council led with a progressive dinner—having appetizers in one restaurant, moving on to another for entrees and sampling desserts at a third, all with TV cameras in tow. The school board held a restaurant breakfast meeting.
In Roanoke, you will see "Eat for Education" decals on restaurant windows and find entry slips for E4E drawings to fill out on the tables. Each month, the winner of the drawing receives a $50 Roanoke restaurant gift card, funded by the city. On Tuesday nights, families enjoy E4E specials, and school employees receive discounts on "Educators Day" each month.
Supplementing the E4E promotion, Finance Director Shawver's office makes sure that residents can see exactly how every penny gets to the schools. The E4E website shows each step in the process, including the day each month that the money comes in and the day it transfers to the schools.
The buzz worked. The tax brought in $4.6 million in the first year, and second-year receipts also are exceeding projections. Meals-tax revenue is up 2.5 percent, after factoring in the rate increase. And restaurants have not suffered. Some owners have told Carson that they are actually doing better now. Roanoke residents make sure that their destination restaurant is within the city limits.
Bishop and her team are delivering results with these added funds. For the first time, all of Roanoke's schools are accredited. The graduation rate has increased to 76 percent. Key to that success is what happens in the summer. Roanoke's enhanced summer school now helps remediate 2,600 students. When kids arrive in the fall "caught up," they have a much better chance of graduating. Bishop's strategy also includes Forest Park Academy, a special school for students who have been socially promoted or are at high risk of dropping out. Forest Park has produced more than 400 graduates in the last three years.
As for political suicide, no incumbent who ran in May of 2010 lost because they supported "2 for 2." Rosen concludes, "Good policy is good politics."
The folks up the road in D.C. could get some much needed education in Roanoke. While they're at it, they also could enjoy a nice meal that satisfies in more ways than one.