The Guilford County Board of Commissioners has just instructed the Guilford County Board of Elections to put a quarter of a cent sales tax hike on the ballot for the seventh time in the last decade and a half.

While the measure has always been voted down previously in Guilford County, one thing commissioners and school officials and school advocates are going to emphasize in the coming PR campaign is that the proceeds of the new tax – estimated to be about $25 million a year – will be used to increase teacher pay and the pay of “classified” school system employees such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors.

Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston said he believes that, in the past, the sales tax option has failed in part because the money would be going to pay off school bond debt. He and many others believe the referendum has a much better chance of passing this year if citizens know that the money will be going to help increase salaries in the school system.

Alston said earlier this year that people talk all the time about what a wonderful job teachers are doing and how dedicated they are – despite not being paid enough. Well, Alston said, this will be a chance to let them put their votes where their mouths are.

That’s the message proponents are going to be shouting loudly until all the votes are cast in November. But there’s a problem: This board, the one that’s running the county in 2024, can promise how that money is used – however, there’s a well-known legal dictum that is the huge fly in the ointment.

 “Current Boards of Commissioners cannot commit future boards.”

The current group of seven Democrats and two Republican commissioners can adopt 1,000 resolutions and make loud promises until they’re blue in the face regarding their intent or their wishes as to where the $25 million (and likely more in future years) goes. However, while that revenue stream will continue to come in year after year, Boards of Commissioners change and different boards often have drastically different priorities from past boards.

In a recent work session, the Board of Commissioners was discussing the wording of a resolution regarding the intent of the use of the added sales tax revenue should the measure pass.

“We’ve got an estimated $25 million,” Alston said. “Do we need to say anything [in the resolution] about the growth of it?  Whatever it is, we want it going to the school system. I don’t want to cap it at $25 million.”

Commissioner Pat Tillman, who used to serve on the Board of Education, said that, since the money would be coming in “in perpetuity,” he wanted to know if the language in the resolution would be binding in future years.

“Legally, by the language, if they want this for hereafter, that’s great and I don’t think anyone would argue about that,” Tillman said, “but in 10 years, say that we really need it for donations or construction…”

“I mean, this is legal language that is going to be permanent?” he added.

In the work session, Alston responded, “I don’t think it’s legal language because we can’t bind other boards in the future. Madam Attorney, do you want to speak to that?”

“That’s right Mr. Chairman and commissioner,” County Attorney Andrea Leslie-Fite said.  “It states an intent of this body and it creates a legislative history for future boards to see what this board was thinking at the time, but it is not binding on future boards.  Specifically, it just gives guidance on what this board was thinking when it was adopted.”

Commissioner Kay Cashion said at the work session, “That is the point that I was going to make, that this is not a long-term guarantee of designating the funds.  It will be contingent on future boards.”

Boards change, emergencies happen; future boards often look completely different than past ones.

While it’s fair to say that there would be some pressure on future boards in the near future to use the money for teacher pay, boards in five or six years might think that the school salaries are finally high enough.

There are other problems as well.  Critics of the NC Education Lottery Fund argue that what really happened is that the money just supplanted other money rather than truly added significant amounts to the school systems across the state.

Money is fungible.

Around the turn of the century, a conservative Guilford County Board of Commissioners set up a Construction Fund – with the idea that the fund would be increased each year and then the county could have that money, along with the interest from the fund, to be used to go toward a “pay as you go” plan for large construction projects rather than borrowing money all the time.  However, years later, a liberal board took over and said: “Hey look at this big pile of money we have just sitting here.  We can spend it on this and this and this and this…”

Soon that Construction Fund was virtually empty.

So, just like the best-laid plans of mice and men, the best-made plans of Boards of Commissioners often go awry.