This past October, the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the constitutional amendment question put forth on the November 2018 ballot, finding unanimously that the wording of the question wasn’t sufficiently clear. Hawaii law requires that the language of a constitutional amendment be “neither misleading or deceptive.” It was a sad day, but not unexpected.

Even though I’ve long been a proponent of a property tax to help fund our Hawaii state-run public schools, I didn’t like the way the ConAm was worded either: “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?”

At its core, this is grossly unfair. Why tax some properties and not others? Well, as the story goes, polls show that citizens in Hawaii would not support a ConAm allowing the state to tax all real property in order to support funding for public schools.

Coalition against the Constitutional Amendment ConAm gather at a apartment building at 2750 Date Street that might be directly affected hold signs denoting a ‘Vote No’.

Members of a coalition against the constitutional amendment ballot question in October. The question was ultimately voided by the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Property taxes fund education in all the other 49 states, but folks in Hawaii just aren’t used to that concept. According to a 2017 USA Today report, Hawaii has the lowest property tax rate in the nation! Changing the public mindset is the first hurdle to jump because I don’t think we’re going to be able to go around it. Got to get the voters’ support.

Transformation won’t be easy. A significantly large percentage of the population feels that there is no reason to trust the Hawaii Department of Education with more tax dollars, and for good reason. They’ve seen rampant financial waste first hand, very little transparency about where the money is going, and no real opportunities to have a voice in how money is spent. DOE financial reports are PDF files with line items in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that come from … where?

The average person with a college education can’t figure out the details of how our education dollars are being spent throughout this huge state bureaucracy. Many have tried and given up. I have no doubt the obfuscation is deliberate. Can’t have the public gettin’ all up in their bizness, can they? Public oversight can be so annoying (and yes, this is sarcasm).

So, Hawaii is stuck. We have one of the highest rates of private school enrollment in the nation because public schools usually just don’t measure up. Public school teachers are paid horribly low salaries and working conditions (except for great weather) are often Machiavellian. We can’t improve our schools without paying better salaries, offering preschool, or updating crumbling and outdated facilities, but the public doesn’t want to invest in the black hole called DOE. It’s a “Catch-22.”

So, I offer a blueprint for how to fix the problem.

Intelligent, Simple, Fair Taxation

First, we have to convince voters that a property tax surcharge to support public education is really necessary. A ConAm for an education property surcharge will never pass until we are empowered to scrutinize how the funds we do have are really being spent. This requires passing a law that makes DOE expenditures more open to the public in a format that enables public oversight (spreadsheet files with a reasonable amount of detail accessible online) because the DOE and BOE will not do this unless required by law.

I know. I’ve asked for it many times. When that finally happens, there will probably be some adjustments made regarding waste. After the belt-tightening and accountability, the truth will be in our hands. My guess is that eventually, should we get the transparency we deserve, it will be revealed that, yes, there is a lot of waste to clean up, but yes, we don’t have enough funding to create a world-class education system.

Once the public is educated sufficiently about the true need, we can then advocate for an intelligent, simple, fair taxation system that does not affect property tax collections at the county level. Here’s how such a ConAm ballot question would read:

“Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, an additional 10 percent surcharge on county real property tax to be used to support the State of Hawaii public education system?”

This is simple. Reasonable. Fair. Clear. Every property owner (and renter) contributes their fair share and they know what to expect. The counties will continue their assessment and collection of property taxes unimpeded, and an additional 10 percent goes to the state for education. Ten percent of already low property taxes is not unreasonable. The calculation of a 10 percent surcharge will make state collection of state surcharge fees easy. Administratively, this should not be difficult to implement.

Of course, the biggest hurdle is changing the mindset of a culture that seems to think public services just fall out of the sky, and resents taxation of any kind. We have a citizenry that is struggling to make ends meet and in Honolulu, a family of four income below $90,000 is considered low income. We have little trust that our tax dollars are well spent.

We need a more cooperative spirit overall. We need leaders who deliver transparency in government, not just campaign on that platform. We need to work together with one goal in mind: great public schools. Why? It benefits everyone, and it’s the right thing to do.

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About the Author

  • Vanessa Ott
    Vanessa Ott is a former audio electronics and IT professional who became a Hawaii public school teacher in her mid 40s, and quit working for the DOE after five years of frustration. She now happily teaches piano lessons to beginning students of all ages, tutors children with reading difficulties, and helps elderly people with their computers.