The Richmond Register

September 10, 2013

District stakeholders debate tax-rate increase at school board hearing

Vote sets stage for full-day kindergarten

By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer

RICHMOND — At Monday’s hearing to set its 2013 property tax rates, the Madison County School Board heard both positive and negative comments from a variety of district stakeholders.

At the end of the night, the board voted 4-1 to set a rate calculated to increase revenue by 4 percent.

The 2013 tax rate on both real estate and personal property will be 60 cents per $100 of valuation. The 2012 rate was 58.3 cents on real estate and 58.8 cents on personal property.

Board chair Mona Isaacs opened the meeting with a few ground rules. Each speaker had just three minutes to address the board, which was not there to answer questions, but to listen, she said.

The audience, buzzing with anticipation, turned their attention to Superintendent Elmer Thomas, who spoke briefly on why the board should consider the tax increase.

Thomas said when he began thinking about the tax rate increase, he thought about what impact the money would make on students.

“I promised this community — and I stand by that promise — whenever I became superintendent, I would be a good steward of our resources,” he said. The proposed levy was “not for the purpose of elaborate spending.”

The district will continue to cut costs in light of federal and state funding reductions (10 percent in federal funds), he said. “...We’re going to see that trend continue.”

State funding levels were at their highest in 2009, he said.

The next year, funding was cut to 2007 levels, said Thomas, and that is where it remains, although the district has gained more than 600 students since 2007.

“Responsible spending” will allow the district to meet the needs of all students and staff, he said. But cuts and reduced spending alone “will not move our district forward.”

Thomas said he was charged to increase academic achievement and “I see this levy as an opportunity to move our district ahead. I see it as a way of providing full-day kindergarten.”

Thomas said full-day kindergarten is a subject “that just keeps coming up.”

While a vote to set a tax rate Monday night was not a vote to start full-day kindergarten, he said, it is a decision to appropriate $639,000 of the extra revenue for instruction.

At the 2012 tax hearing, only eight people addressed the board, and all were against any tax increase. And that night, the board held the line on taxes.

However, the tables were turned at Monday’s meeting with supporters outnumbering opponents nearly 2 to 1.

Views from both sides

Dr. Amy Smith, the Reading Recovery teacher leader for the district, said she assists reading intervention teachers with students and part of that assistance includes identifying road blocks to student achievement.

“Our half-day kindergarten model is a road block to student achievement,” she said. “One that has grown more difficult to overcome as class sizes go up and funding for supplemental support has gone down.”

Smith said research shows full-day kindergarten is the foundation for high achievement in math and reading — and has an even greater impact on at-risk children.

Madison County’s half-day kindergarten program “establishes the achievement gap in reading that is so difficult to overcome later,” she said.

Maintaining a half-day model because of funding is “short-sighted,” she said, when considering the long-term costs associated with half-day kindergarten and low student achievement.

“Decades of research have illustrated the link between half-day programs, increased dropout rates and eventual poverty — so much so that the National Center for Educational Statistics declared, ‘Full-day kindergarten programs are a very important step of breaking the cycle of poverty in any state that adopts them.’”

Data released in the fall revealed that 71 percent of first-graders started this school year below the new national benchmarks for reading, 39 percent of which are “substantially” below the benchmark, she said.

“This should not be a discussion of if we are going to do full-day kindergarten, but when and how,” Smith said.

Amanda Childers, a kindergarten teacher at Shannon Johnson Elementary, also spoke in favor of the tax increase.

She said teachers cannot fit anything else into a half-day schedule and are “trimming the fat every day.”

Childers also pointed out that children who are not being properly fed at home would get to eat a healthy lunch in a full-day program.

“We are pushing these children as hard as we can for three hours,” she said. “Children deserve more time in the classroom, whatever the cost.”

Dale Jury, the husband of a Madison Central High School teacher and father of a Central student, spoke in favor of a tax increase.

“It’s the right thing to do,” according to Jury, who said he volunteers at Central approximately 1,000 hours a year.

“Too often I’ve seen groups who sit on the sidelines and point fingers at supposed or imagined waste screaming for change, threatening consequences, yet never offering solutions,” he said.

The responsibility of educating the community’s children is everyone’s, he said.

“We cannot advocate that responsibility to our schools on one hand and then refuse to support them with the other,” he said.

Next to speak was Central’s assistant principal Angie Barnes, who said she has attended meetings to support expenditures on programs that benefit “all of our kids, including our at-risk kids.”

Barnes said she was “asked very pointedly” by a board member one evening if she would be there to support a tax increase as well.

“My answer was then ‘yes’ and it is ‘yes’ tonight,” she said. “... I am in support of a tax increase — do what you got to do.”

But in contrast to last year’s tax-hike hearing, speakers did not all lean one way.

Stacy Turner said he is an “overtaxed property owner,” who does not agree with a tax increase.

He said the current school board, and past boards, “has wasted our money on a lot of different things.”

Turner pointed out Central’s $4.6 million sports complex completed last year. The sports complex, which was nearing completion during the August 2012 tax-hike meeting, has been a hot topic for tax-hike opponents.

During last year’s meeting, in an effort to “set the record straight,” Isaacs said the complex did not require a bond issue and that the funds for the facility had been accumulating in a construction and building savings fund since 2007.

But some say that the money could have been used elsewhere.

Turner said one example of the way the district wasted money was by bringing a new superintendent in from outside of the district and paying him too much.

“I can’t believe there is not somebody in this county that is not qualified to sit in that chair,” he continued.

However, Thomas was the only superintendent finalist who was already employed by the district, having served as Central’s principal since 2010. He also taught in Berea Community Schools early in his career.

Turner also wanted to know how full-day kindergarten would benefit students.

“Is it going to help them with reading, writing and arithmetic — what they would learn in the first grade? Are we going to do away with first grade?” he asked.

Turner claimed the board never listened to people in the county and that he was tired of paying “more taxes for you to squander.”

“I’ll tell you what, if you do pass this and you come up for re-election, I will walk the streets trying to get you voted out,” he said.

Retired teacher Bruce Davis said the board was faced with a “damnable decision — damned if you do; damned if you don’t.”

Davis said he was glad to pay taxes to support the school system, but that a 4 percent revenue increase was too much. He suggested the district set a rate that generated only a 2 percent increase instead.

No stranger to the podium, middle-schooler Katelyn Renfro, daughter of board member Mary Renfro, spoke against a tax increase.

She spoke at the August 2012 hearing, months before her mother was elected to the board.

Katelyn said with loss of jobs in Kentucky, how can her neighbors support their families and “pay for this ridiculous tax?”

She said her grandmother “almost lost her house to taxes” and that retired people cannot afford “another $40” on their tax bills.

Next to speak was Debbie Secchio of the Madison County Tax Watch. Thomas is a “likeable superintendent,” she said, but not a fiscal conservative.

“Your legacy will probably be that one month into office, you put the impetus behind a very large tax increase,” Secchio said.

She said full-day kindergarten could’ve started years ago with the money spent on the Central sports complex. She said the district lied to citizens when it said construction funds could only be used on construction projects.

All of the other taxing districts have not raised taxes, she said. “They are good stewards of money. That’s what we expect and we expect that from you.”

A parent of children in the district, Shawn Hamilton, spoke in favor of the increase.

Although “there is never a good time to increase taxes,” Hamilton said, Madison County students “are at a disadvantage” while being held to same standards as the rest of the state.

If the increase was approved, he said, the community should “hold your feet to the fire” to get full-day kindergarten started.

Stephanie Winkler, a former teacher at Mayfield Elementary who was elected to lead the Kentucky Education Association last year, gave a passionate speech about the need for the community and district to work together.

“Why is this such a difficult decision?” she asked. “If we want to be the community that is leading the charge, why can’t we as a community come together and say ‘This is the right thing to do for kids?’”

Winkler said there is nothing that can be done about how funds were spent in the past, pointing out that Thomas had been superintendent for only a month.

She said she was glad there is a Tax Watch group in the community to hold the board accountable, “but we’ve got to quit fighting and we’ve got to support each other.”

Mary McMahan, a mother of two children at White Hall Elementary, said she doesn’t trust the board.

McMahan attends most board meetings and work sessions, she said.

She criticized the board for fulfilling the employment contract of former Superintendent Tommy Floyd, which included paying for his doctoral studies. Within months after earning his degree, Floyd accepted a new position at the Kentucky Department of Education.

“We put Dr. Floyd through to get his PhD,” she said. But there was nothing in writing requiring that Floyd “stick around before the ink ever dried on his diploma.”

Blue Grass Army Depot employee Debbie Spears also spoke against a tax increase.

She said the board “wasted money on those new buildings; we really didn’t need those new schools.”

Spears claimed that with the many elementary schools and only two high schools, there would be no place for students to go when they move up in grades.

“We could’ve added a few students to each classroom,” she said. 

But the next speaker countered her claim that there wasn’t a need for new schools.

Retired teacher Teddy Taylor, said he worked as a painter during the summer and “those old buildings were falling down.”

He also said the old Central sports complex was “falling down” before the new one was built.

He encouraged critics of the sports complex to stop by the school in the evenings and on the weekends to see just how many students make use of the field.

“I’m also a taxpayer, and I don’t worry about a property tax because I know it’s going to children,” he said.

In the past, Taylor said he has worked closely with “throw-away kids — poor kids who don’t measure up or come from one-parent homes.”

Building a good education system will keep these children from ending up in jail, he added.

“You know what we make as teachers?” he said. “We make a difference.”

One of the district’s bus drivers also addressed the board. She supported full-day kindergarten, she said, but was afraid that bus drivers would lose their jobs or get cut back in hours with the elimination of the mid-day kindergarten bus runs.

Crystal Wylie can be reached at cwylie@richmondregister.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.