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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.

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.   

Colin C. May 16, 2011 at 04:50 PM
Kurt, I could not agree more. I was raised in a town not far from here. My Mom was very unhappy with the local school system back in the 50ies and sent me away to school, but she never complained about the taxes. She thought that the education of all children was among the most important things that we could do and that everyone in the community benefitted in the long run. She said that those without children in the schools helped pay for her education and now it was her turn to do the right thing. No, the schools must not waste money. But a good education is not free and the Geneva schools do a good job. I can't help but remember the now nearly forgotten G.I.bill after WW II. Tens of thousands of men and women were given the opportunity to go to college. Many would never have considered it without that bill. It helped usher in the most prosperous era in history. It was well worth every penny that we paid in taxes.
Bob McQuillan May 16, 2011 at 09:54 PM
Suggesting those questioning the school district about ever increasing taxes are against educating our youngsters, could not be further from the truth. From the writer's description of his father, I am sure his Dad didn't drive a Cadillac when a Ford did the job and he could afford it. Do we really need marble inlay tile floors in all of the schools? Do we really need excerise rooms that have better equipment then privately owned gyms? Does the superintendent really need a district vehicle with all costs covered when he lives in Geneva and his office is on 4th street. Do employees really need "retirement enhancements" for the last four years of their career? Do over 100 employees really need district issued p-cards (charge cards). Should teachers receive an automatic salary increase just because they have been around another year (step)? Does it make sense that the district pays 75% for a masters degree and then automatically provides a salary increase when the degree is attained (lane). Is it right for the employee to receive free medical & dental coverage and only pay 60% for family members? Do sixty teachers really deserve at least a 10% salary increase from school year 2009 to 2010 when the community is told the average increase will be 2.96%. You read that right, sixty teachers received at least a 10% increase from 2009 to 2010! Taxpayers understand the need to educate children but as Mr. Wehermeister Sr. would have said, "We need to be able to afford it."
Kurt Wehrmeister May 16, 2011 at 10:17 PM
Bob, I wouldn't speak to the specifics of each question you cite; I'm not qualified to do so. But I would think that at least more than half of the matters you raise seem to me to be thoroughly valid points that should discussed by the board, whether in open session or (in the areas of personnel agreements and collective bargaining) in the appropriate executive session. It would seem to me that the next contract between District 304 and the GEA will likely look very different from the current one -- and if there are going to be concessions of various sorts asked of the teachers, administration should also experience concessions. We all heard, in what seems long-past flush times of six and seven years ago, that certain perks had to be granted to superintendent candidates to be "competitive with other districts." So there would, as you note, seem to be plenty of room for concessions. As for the various ornate inlays in entry foyer floors -- unless these were donated or were the result of fundraising, you're right, my father would have very bluntly asked, good times or bad: "Just what the hell is this doing to educate a child?" But now that such a thing is installed, neither would he approve spending funds to drill it out, either.

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