By a one-vote margin, Durham County Commissioners squelched a resolution Thursday night to hold a public referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax increase this November.

Commissioners Michael Page, Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron voted against the measure; Brenda Howerton and Joe Bowser voted yes.

Revenue from the sales tax, estimated at $7.8 million for fiscal year 2011-2012, would have been funneled solely to public schools. Because of decreased state funding, the Durham Public School district needed—and received from county commissioners—an influx of cash for the coming school year to thwart extensive teacher layoffs.

The sales tax would have been broadly applied to consumer items including restaurant food and prepared meals. Groceries and prescription drugs would have been exempt.

The commission had to approve the proposal tonight—and the county attorney would have needed to deliver the exact resolution to the county board of elections tomorrow—for the referendum to have been on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Bowser proposed the sales tax and the referendum in hopes of warding off any potential budgetary crisis and further property tax increases in the 2011-2012 school year.

“We need to be prepared,” he said.

While on its face supporting school funding seems like a political no-brainer, the issue is more complex. In the last fiscal year DPS made a critical decision: Rather than trim parts of the system budget, it opted to transfer $13 million from the classroom teacher category to other areas that had been slashed by the General Assembly. Then earlier this year, the district asked the commissioners for more money to avoid massive teacher layoffs.

Reckhow put the financial onus not only on DPS, but on the legislature.

“The last thing we need is for the state to push more education funding to the local level,” Reckhow said. “It will lead to greater inequities in which higher-income counties can afford a higher supplement and lower income counties will not. It’s important to work with the General Assembly to find solutions.”

Heron suggested further taxing liquor and cigarettes to raise revenue for schools, rather than implementing a sales tax increase.

“Joe, your heart is in the right place, but I won’t be supporting it,” Heron told her colleague. “What you’re proposing is what the legislature wants—for counties to take over school funding. And every time they get in financial trouble, they push things on to the counties. I’m kind of tired of it.”

In addition, it is uncertain if the school board or new DPS Superintendent Eric Becoats, who started his job less than a month ago, support the sales tax.

“I’d like to give [Becoats] an opportunity to do his job,” Heron said. “We need to give him a chance to tell us what are some of the needs in the system.“We’re sitting here on Cloud 9 thinking we’re going to make everything wonderful in Durham County by raising taxes. We’re sitting here guessing.”

The pivotal vote, even though it was unofficial, came from Lavonia Allison, chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, who vehemently spoke against the sales tax, calling it “regressive.”

“I’m really appalled at what happened to that $13 million,” said Allison, one of two people who had signed up to speak. “There was $13 million for teachers and they moved the money and used it for something else.”

Two years ago, Allison and the committee aligned with the conservative Americans for Prosperity to oppose a meals tax, which was soundly defeated by a 72-28 margin.

“I have to be opposed to [the recent sales tax] in order to be consistent,” she said.

Allison’s stance appeared to sway Page, who later turned to Bowser and advised him that “One of Durham’s major political groups is saying they won’t support it.”

Shortly afterward, the resolution failed.

The Indy e-mailed several Durham school board members for comment Thursday night. Check back Friday for updates.