GREAT FALLS, Mont. — "Dear Canyon Creek Store,
Thank you for paying taxes to support our schools. I like the food. Our cook is great. I like to learn math. When I grow up I want to work at the Exxon station.
Throughout the state and across the nation, millions of kids like 7-year-old Carter Otheim return to school this week. Most are unlikely to pause and ponder just how their education is paid for, or where the money comes from. All too often, it's just taken for granted.
However, two small rural schools in Lewis and Clark County have recently adopted programs to explain to kids what it means to pay taxes and to encourage them to write letters of thanks to the people who make their education possible — namely the average taxpayer.
"This gave the children the opportunity to learn about taxes, what taxes were and where they came from, and also to understand that somebody else does provide things for them," said Linda McCabe, teacher at the Wolf Creek Elementary School. "It was their way of saying thank you, so it was a learning experience as well as appreciating what people do for you."
It is a simple concept really, that we should all be grateful for the benefits we enjoy at the expense of other people, and that it is not unreasonable to make the effort to thank somebody for them. Yet the concept touches upon deeper concepts of the role of government in people's lives and our connections to the communities in which we live.
"Dear Tom and Stacy,
Thank you for paying taxes and supporting out school. The three things I like in school are art, math and reading. When I grow up I want to work with animals.
The idea to have school children write thank-you letters to local taxpayers originated with the book "Real Common Sense" written by Brian Kahn, host of the public affairs radio series "Home Ground."
"It's a book expounding values to revitalize America," Kahn said of "Real Common Sense." ''It occurred to me as I was thinking about public education, that when I was growing up I had no idea who was paying for my education. I took it for granted, and I think most kids take it for granted. So I suggested that twice a year, kids be asked in all public schools across the United States to open the phone book, pick a name and write a letter thanking a taxpayer for helping to pay for their education."
Kahn said his letter writing idea is more than a political or philosophical gimmick — that there is both educational and communal value to be found in the simple act of thanking someone.
"I felt the benefits would be two-fold," he explained. "First, by the time those kids graduate from high school, unlike me, they would know and appreciate the gift of education from their community. And a lot of citizens over the time of those kids schooling would receive letters from students thanking them. I think it would be a very positive, human thing."
Kahn's idea may not have gone much further than a few pages within his book had it not been taken up and championed by Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Derek Brown.
"This little project gives kids a little demonstration that it's all those people up and down the street paying property taxes, who pay on your schools," Brown said. "It's a good thing to learn, to thank somebody for that."
Brown took the letter writing idea to Marcia Davis, Lewis and Clark County's superintendent of schools. Davis embraced the idea, and suggested the letter writing program to several of the local superintendents.
"We're always going to taxpayers and asking them for money to fund our schools," Davis noted. "It just seemed a very good reciprocal idea to thank them."
In conversations with their students, teachers at the Trinity School in Canyon Creek discovered the kids had no idea how their schools were funded. Some thought the money came from the annual school bake sale, or was provided solely by a wealthy couple who lived on the hill. One child suggested that school was paid for by a local chili feed.
"It was really eye-opening to the teachers to have that discussion with children," Davis said.
However in the end, only two small rural schools, Trinity School and the Wolf Creek School, adopted the program. According to Brown, many school boards rejected the idea fearing the taxpayers would view it as a political ploy in support of school bond levies aimed at manipulating the students, and through them their parents.
"It's defeating it by overthinking it," Brown said. "Rather than just moving ahead with something that has a genuine good feeling to it, you try and figure out why it's not going to work and then you don't do it. It's fear based."
"Dear Rocking z Ranch,
Thank you for paying taxes to support our school. I appreciate the school you built for us. We have a nice new kitchen. I like to learn math. When I grow up I would like to be a daycare lady.
But for the schools that did adopt the thank-you letter concept, the program was a complete success.
"They were really appreciative," McCabe said of the people who received thank-you letters from the children at Wolf Creek School. "They just liked hearing from the children and having that connection to them, but also enjoyed knowing the children were appreciative."
Shawn Otheim from Wolf Creek, who received a thank you from his own son, said the letters were a great idea.
"I took the letter home and asked him what it was for, and he said he was thanking me for paying taxes," Otheim said with a chuckle. "I didn't even know he knew what taxes were."
Beyond the unexpected pleasure of getting a letter from a second-grader, Kahn hopes the project he dreamed up will help to reconnect people to the social institutions that bind us together as a community.
"Older folks get irate paying their taxes, younger kids don't understand the gift they're receiving," Kahn observed. "If we lose sight of our connections through our system of civic representative government, I think we're finished. I don't think we can last as a society, and make the sacrifices that prior generations have made, unless we have that glue. That's what the American community was founded on."
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com