Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Woodford County voters to decide Tuesday on property-tax increase that would pay for a new high school

By Sarah Ladd
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Woodford County voters will go to the polls Tuesday, June 26, to cast ballots for or against a proposed tax increase for a new high school.

Advocates of the tax express frustration over the condition of the 54-year-old school and potentially limited resources for students in the future, while opponents say the school district’s contingency fund is too large and should be used to reduce the tax hike or improve the building. 

The proposed increase is 5.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value.  For a $200,000 home, it would be an increase of $110 per year, or $9.17 per month. The revenue would pay off bonds the district would issue for the $47 million project.

High school's sign promotes use of absentee ballots. (Photo by Sarah Ladd)
Hawkins said one reason for a new campus instead of renovation is that the building is in a landlocked area that does not allow expansion. “The cost of a renovation that would update the facility with more modern spaces is over half the cost of a new high school,” he said, adding that a renovated building would still have no room for the performing arts. He also asked, “What would we do with the students during a major renovation?”

Hawkins said a new building would provide modern science and engineering labs, open spaces for collaboration and an auditorium for performances.  He said the school could also greatly improve spaces for band, orchestra, choir, career and technical education and some athletic facilities.

He also mentioned safety as a feature, saying a new school could be designed with the most up to date safety features. “That is extremely important given the most recent school shooting incidents,” he said.

Amanda Glass of Midway, a member of I Support our Schools—the grassroots campaign to pass the tax—and parent of future WCHS students, also mentioned safety as a concern. She said when the school was first built in 1964, “school violence wasn’t such the concern as it is today.” She pointed out the capacity increase in the school, which she said held 771 students when it was built and now has 1,250.

Glass said the school is not on par with 21st century standards for education. “A new building would offer areas to collaborate, exciting new programs and opportunities for all students.”

Hawkins agreed, and said timing is key for the project, because the district’s debt load and current tax base would not allow it to undertake the project for 12 years. “If the tax does not pass, next year’s kindergarten class would not see a new high,” he said.

Opponents of the tax also cite the school district’s debt of $26.745 million, which includes $3.15 million for a new HVAC system at Northside Elementary School in Midway, a debt that will not be paid off until 2027.

Wayne Raider, owner of a Versailles liquor store, said he doesn’t feel people have been educated on the details of the proposed tax. “The only reason they are asking for 5.5 is to get a loan,” he said. “These people think the 5.5 is paying for school.” The bond issue would be paid off over a period of 20 to 25 years.

Raider also challenged the size of the school district’s $5,079,373 contingency fund, 11.6 percent of annual revenues. He said it should be allocated to rebuilding the school.

Piper Williams White, owner and operator of M.C.’s Parties and Events in Versailles, said she also wants the contingency fund spent on the renovations to the school before resorting to a tax hike to issue long-term bonds. “The debt will be tripled and not paid off until our now-kindergarten kids have their own children,” she said.

Hawkins said he hears a lot about the size of the fund. “Our contingency fund, or rainy-day fund, is there in case of emergencies or to deal with reductions in state funding that can occur during a year,” he said. While the state only requires districts to keep 2 percent of their money in contingency, he said, that amount would only cover three weeks of operating expenses should the district need to access them. He said the 11 percent amount would cover three months of expenses.

“This strong financial position allows us to deal with state cuts and the ebbs and flows of state budgets passed by the legislature,” Hawkins said. He added that if Gov. Matt Bevin’s original budget had passed in the recent legislative session, only 55 of the state’s 173 school districts would have been able to remain in operation after two years without spending cuts or local tax increases. “We were one of those 55 districts and this is because of our solid financial position,” he said.

Opponents of the tax increase have other complaints. Raider said his property taxes increased from $1,300 to $2,700 in the last two years. “They reclassified how much ground to be agriculture, then reassessed my house last year,” he said.

Glass said she has not experienced a spike in her property taxes, but acknowledged people’s reluctance to pay more. “As a community I feel like it is our responsibility to give our children the best education possible, and that includes facilities,” She said. She pointed out that a similar tax has been used before to build other schools, including the current middle school. “Good schools help us all, with children or not,” she said. “It means increased property value and greater opportunities for economic development.”

Glass also expressed concern about future opportunities for students if the tax does not pass. “I worry about the children that won’t find something they are interested in because it isn’t offered due to limited facilities,” she said. “Also, there will be kids that leave our district for districts that offer more than we are currently able to.”

Hawkins said the current building has not hindered academic performance and pointed out that the high school and school district are “very high performing in the state. We have tremendous teachers and outstanding students.”  He said that the issue is rather about missed opportunities for the students “that would enhance their performance and experience.”

Ambrose Wilson IV of Midway, who chairs the school board, said he is not surprised the tax has been controversial, but feels it will pass successfully on Tuesday. He said he has spoken with parents in Midway who never assumed their children would still be in the old high-school building and are excited at the prospect of a new school. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for people to be part of the process to vote for a new high school,” he said.

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