Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Earth Day

Tomorrow is the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration, which took place on April 22, 1970. I was a sixth grader at Park Elementary School at that time, which was a pivotal year for me. After five years at a small single-story school in a bucolic setting along a dirt road in Murphytown, the “country kids” were bussed into town to spend our sixth grade year in a big old two story (plus basement as well as a separate gymnasium) school at a major intersection in town.

Life was different going to school in town. Whereas rural Murphytown had acres of green grass playground along Stillwell Creek, Park School had no grass on its small gravel playground in the back of the building. Also, the first few times a fire engine or ambulance screamed by on the busy street outside, it was the country kids who just couldn’t keep themselves from jumping up to look out the window. During my time at Murphytown from first to fifth grade, I don’t think we ever had an emergency vehicle pass by on the dirt road that ran in front of our school.

Murphytown had one classroom for each grade, and so I had always been together with all my classmates—until we went to Park School. It was so large, there were three different sections of sixth grade! Many of my friends were assigned to the other two teachers instead of being in my class.

However, I ended up enjoying my year at Park School. I made many new friends that year, some of whom I’m still friends with after all these years. My principal, Mr. Hasbargen, was still a principal with Wood County Schools when I served on the school board from 1992 to 2000. My homeroom teacher was Mrs. Kellow, who was a wonderful teacher (even if she did criticize me about the creative flourishes I added to my cursive writing—she wanted our cursive writing to be exactly as she taught it!). Our classroom was on the front left corner of the school’s top floor. All six classrooms on this upper floor were devoted to fifth and sixth graders.

While most of our time was spent learning from our homeroom teachers, we also rotated to other classrooms for certain topics. Mrs. Prince taught us science in her room on the left side of the building’s back end. In between on the left side was Mrs. Armstrong (another sixth grade teacher), who ran the library that occupied the center of the upper floor. Miss Downey taught us art in the classroom on the right corner in the front of the building. Miss Barr (also a sixth grade teacher) taught us music in her classroom on the back right side. Mrs. Boso was the designated gym teacher, and had the classroom in the middle of the right side. [At least, this is how I remember things after all these years.]

I am very grateful to the teachers at Park School who decided that we should join in this newfangled “Earth Day” holiday. Concerns about the environment were rapidly coming to the forefront at that time. The space program had provided incredible pictures of the planet earth, looking like a fragile blue marble against the dark black void of space (earlier that school year, I can remember watching the launch of Apollo 12 on TV in the auditorium at the center of the first floor at Park School). Air and water pollution were becoming accepted as major menaces. Even our national symbol, the bald eagle, was thought to be disappearing due to DDT pesticides.

It is against that backdrop that our teachers decided to do something to observe Earth Day, and I’m glad that I took part in the very first one. Every Earth Day since then, I think back to that sunny spring day when our teachers sent us out to clean up the school grounds. I can still remember reaching my hands into the prickly shrubbery that formed a perimeter along Seventh Street and Park Avenue, separating the children from the sidewalks and the busy streets. I remember we were normally required to stay within the shrubbery on the school grounds, but for this special day we were allowed to pick up trash along the street sidewalks as well. We may have done other activities beyond litter clean-up, but my most vivid memory is tearing up my hands and arms reaching for trash in the hedges.

We helped to beautify our school grounds that afternoon, just eight days before the big May Day celebration, when we would weave our way around the maypole in the school’s front yard (do any schoolchildren today even know what I’m talking about when I mention the maypole?).

Sadly, just like maypoles, both Murphytown and Park Schools have died off, too. Both were closed in the wave of school consolidations shortly before I was elected to the Board of Education. Park School was torn down and replaced on that busy street corner with a CVS Pharmacy and a Wendy’s Restaurant.

Park School may be gone, but I have one picture of it taken shortly before it was closed (see below). Plus, I have many good memories from my one year there! And each year when Earth Day is commemorated, I always think of reaching my hands into those prickly hedges to pick out discarded papers on the very first Earth Day.

My classroom was at the top left. If you look close, maybe you can see a country kid peering out the window at the passing fire engine.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

My Take on Taxes

As the April 15 tax deadline day looms a week away, many people are grumbling about paying taxes. Maybe I’m weird, but I look at paying taxes in a similar fashion to the way I look at voting—it is one of the rites of citizenship, and I’m proud to support my country. There are things I’d like to change about the way our government (on all levels) spends money, but you won’t hear me grumbling about the need to pay taxes. It makes more sense to grumble at the elected decision-makers than at the tax collectors.

When I was teaching Constitutional Law, I always made sure my students learned that Americans wanted an income tax. The 16th Amendment was approved over a century ago after the Supreme Court initially overturned a federal tax on incomes over $4,000 (about $110,000 in today’s dollars). The original idea was that those who were prospering in our country should help pay for our country.

In today’s world, there are new problems related to paying taxes. A friend of mine in Ohio recently submitted his state income tax electronically, only to be informed that someone had already filed a tax return in his name and claimed the refund. The state tax department required him to answer a series of questions intended to confirm that he was the real person. Unfortunately, these personal knowledge questions—old addresses, mortgage payment amounts, previous cars, credit card accounts, and others—are not always easy to answer.

Because of the rising number of tax returns submitted by identity thieves, tax departments are using the identity quiz questions developed by the major credit bureaus. If you have ever attempted to get your Congressionally-mandated free copy of your credit report (which I highly recommend, and which can be obtained by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com), then you’ve probably had to answer the same type of questions to confirm your identity. Sometimes they involve facts that many of us did not think we would need to retain. Failure to correctly answer those required by the tax department might result in the need for you to fill out additional forms, and perhaps even make a trip to the local tax office to verify your identity in person.

My tax strategy in recent years has been to fill out my tax form myself on paper—the old fashioned way. Then I take the hard-copy forms (along with a photo ID) to the local IRS office, where a courteous employee reviews my return, confirms its accuracy, and (with a quick inquiry on her computer) assures me that no identity thief has yet tried to use my name to file for a tax refund. If by chance a tax thief had already done so, I would be able to immediately prove my identity and begin the process to correct the situation. Then I walk up the street to the West Virginia Tax Department office and go through the same process. I’ve never had to wait very long and my dealings with the tax employees have always been pleasant.

I enjoy bucking the trend towards electronic tax submissions and instead dealing face-to-face with a real person! They even provide me with free photocopies of my submitted tax forms! Plus, I didn’t need to pay for postage stamps and worry about the delivery (or worry about hackers breaking into my home PC and perusing any tax software for identity theft purposes).

Another identity theft precaution that people should take is to register with the IRS—as well as Social Security—for their personal online accounts, before any identity thieves try to establish themselves as you. I was able to establish my IRS account by going to http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Get-Transcript and following the directions. Similarly, I set up my free online Social Security account at http://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/. Note that it is essential to create very strong passwords for these important accounts!

I learned about these precautionary actions because I pay attention to computer security issues. There are many good websites providing identity theft advice, but if I had to pick just one, I’d recommend the blog of former Washington Post reporter Brian Krebs. Check out this recent example related to this topic-- https://krebsonsecurity.com/2015/03/sign-up-at-irs-gov-before-crooks-do-it-for-you/.

Of course, if I somehow became the U.S. President, I have a solution to this identity theft problem—which would also benefit one of our country’s other problems. I would wait until after April 15 before sending any tax refund checks. This would stop tax identity thieves because they always try to submit their fake returns early, before the real person submits their actual forms. If more than one return is filed for the same name, then the IRS could investigate prior to sending a check. It would also encourage everyone to submit their tax returns before the April 15 deadline. Plus, the U.S. budget deficit could be reduced slightly because of the additional interest that would be earned by not immediately sending back tax refunds (not to mention saving the money now lost to identity thieves).

Some folks would grumble because they wouldn’t get their money back as quickly as they did before. However, one thing I have learned during my stint as an elected politician is that it is impossible to make everybody happy, and that sometimes you just have to get accustomed to the inevitable grumbling.

I wish you a happy tax deadline day and many happy returns!

This is a picture of me riding a two-wheeled Segway in front of the U.S. Capitol a few years back. It is more interesting than a picture of me doing my taxes.