Jul 30, 2014
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Retirees and School Taxes: Paying It Forward

Public schools are expensive things to run—and when one’s own children are long-ago grown and gone, writing that check can perhaps be maddening. But my late father, hardly a magnanimous sort, had an intriguing take on the matter.

Retirees and School Taxes: Paying It Forward

When I spoke at my father’s funeral in October 2009, I fear that some of the attendees may have been a bit taken aback at my honest assessment of the man—especially as I contrasted him with my mother, who had died 14 years before him.

Though Lois Noel Wehrmeister was never a regular churchgoer (during my lifetime, anyway), she lived her life by the Scriptural admonition that we are all our brothers’ keeper; that to do His will, we must always seek to help those less fortunate. Mom gave thousands of dollars to relatives and friends who were down on their luck, as well as to people she barely knew—and she would have given away many thousands more if my father hadn’t put a stop to it. She wasn’t this way out of any sense of obligation; it's just that giving anything she could, to help someone in trouble, was simply in my mother's DNA.

Dad, on the other hand, frankly did NOT believe that we are all our brothers’ keeper.

He was instead of the firm opinion that it was each person’s responsibility to look after himself and his or her immediate family; that the most honorable and beneficial thing you can do for society is to work hard, and to conserve your own resources, so as to make yourself independent and not need anyone else’s help, to not be a burden on your community or society. He was about as doctrinaire a fiscal conservative as one could get. Other than roads and national defense, he firmly believed that private enterprise could do just about anything better and more efficiently than government.

Trust me, Bob Wehrmeister was all about being efficient with limited dollars. He bought his suits from Marshall Field's basement, not Brooks Brothers. He wore his Korean War-vintage Army fatigue jacket and boots to do yard work until they finally fell apart around 1965. All through the '60s, he and his own father (who was an auto mechanic) repaired our family car and did oil changes themselves (and although Mom resumed her secretarial career after 1968, until 1974 there was only one family car). We went on exactly two automobile vacations during my entire childhood—and on one of those trips, Dad arranged it so that we stayed with friends for free.

Our household didn’t get a color television until I was in college.

And my friend Rick Nagel will, I trust, chuckle at the teenage memory of fixing lunch together in our kitchen and being admonished by the old man: “Hey, one slice of bologna on that sandwich is enough.”

He pinched every penny; as with many children of the Depression, that was in his DNA.

And yet ... I never, ever heard Dad complain about the portion of his real estate tax bill that went to Geneva School District 304—even though it was certainly the case in 1964 when he first paid Geneva taxes, as it was 32 years later when he moved from Geneva, and has been every year in between and since, that District 304 has constituted, by far, the largest share of every Genevan’s real-estate tax bill.

Now, if you’re looking at the photo from 1966 that accompanies this piece (I’m the one at lower-left, emulating Dad’s pompadour), you’re thinking: Well, sure, Wehrmeister’s old man wouldn’t have complained about his school taxes; he sent three kids through the Geneva public schools.

He did indeed. But consider:

In 1964 when we moved to Geneva, my older brother was enrolled in fifth grade at Harrison Street School, I was in second grade, and my younger sister was still two years from starting kindergarten. Fifteen years later in 1979, my sister got her diploma from Geneva High School—and so Bob Wehrmeister’s kids were finished drawing any benefit from School District 304.

But then, for 17 more years, until he sold our East Side home at age 70 in 1996, he continued to pay taxes to District 304, and still never once complained about it—even after he retired in 1989.

The first time I heard my father explain what I might have considered (had I given it much thought) this very puzzling contradiction in his political/financial philosophy, was in a Saturday-morning conversation, sometime in the 1980s, with a contemporary of his in the lobby of the old First National Bank of Geneva.

The other man was grousing about a forthcoming District 304 referendum—along the familiar lines of, “Hell, that’s all they ever want is more money from me, and I don’t even have any kids in the schools.”

Dad’s response: “Yeah, neither do I anymore. But you know what? When my kids were all in the schools, I figure I got a tremendous bargain. And now it’s time for me to pay for someone else’s kids’ education—that’s how I look at it.”

Today’s phrase for this kind of thinking comes from a movie title of a few years ago: “Pay It Forward.”  And to be sure, the public schools were the only aspect of life in which I ever heard my father espouse such a mindset, but there you go.

Because of this strange mix, if Dad had ever been community-minded enough to even consider the thought, I think he’d have been a pretty good Board of Education member.

Waste and extravagance of any sort were not just numbers on a spreadsheet to him; they were personally offensive—whether times were thick or thin.

For example, he used the same desk and chair in his Loop insurance office for almost 25 years. By the 1980s they were woefully old-fashioned looking. He didn't care; they still worked.

And so Dad would have bluntly asked why a District 304 assistant superintendent, or a school principal, couldn’t do the same thing, and he would have voted "no" to an office redecoration unless someone's furniture was literally falling apart.

But if there were some other expenditure that would demonstrably provide an academic opportunity for a group of students, he wouldn’t have quibbled for a moment.

We’re hearing a lot in these lean times from Genevans in their 60s and 70s who protest that the school district is “taxing me out of my home.” And, where they single out examples of extravagance, or areas where money can be saved without cutting back on educational experiences, then I’m wholeheartedly on their side. There is ample evidence this spring that the Geneva Board of Education is paying plenty of attention to these sentiments, and they certainly should.

But where such statements are simply motivated by the resentment of having to pay for someone else’s children to go to school—well, folks, that’s how things work.

If you're a 70-year-old Genevan now, and your kids are in their early 40s, and they went through the Geneva schools in the 1970s and '80s--well, my father, who’d be 85 this year if he were still with us, paid for your kids to go to school.

No need to thank him. Because you're now doing the same thing for the next generation’s children.   

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