By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
The Madison County school board voted 4-0 on Thursday to levy a 58.3-cent tax (per $100 assessed value) on real estate, the same rate as last year.
Board member Becky Coyle, whose mother passed away Wednesday, was absent.
The personal property rate was lowered to 58.8 cents, a drop from last year’s rate of 59.4.
The board was required to hold a public hearing to set the tax rate if they did not take the compensating rate of 56.5 cents on real and personal property.
Under state law, a compensating rate generates the same revenue as the previous year, plus revenue from new properties.
Revenue calculations are based on property values determined by a county’s Property Value Administrator.
Every seat was taken in the Douglas House lecture hall at Madison Central High School.
Eight people addressed the board, all opposed to any tax increase. Each had three minutes to speak.
One of the first speakers was 11-year-old Katelyn Renfro who attends Farristown Middle School.
“You can only tax people so many times until they can’t go on,” Katelyn said. “My dad has to work two jobs, and my friends are moving because their houses are being foreclosed. Please look into the bottom of your hearts and don’t raise taxes.”
Later, Katelyn revisited the podium and read from a prepared statement in which she commented on “a program on EKU’s campus to help high school kids get college credits.”
“All we know is that the program is very expensive. If it was moved off EKU’s campus and back to the high schools … it would save us taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.
Katelyn was referring to Middle College at Eastern Kentucky University, a program entering its second year and intended to help high school juniors and seniors who are academically capable but at risk of dropping out of school.
The program currently enrolls 39 students and costs the district $115,000 a year, including administrative staff and tuition for the students to attend EKU classes, according Randy Peffer, the district’s chief academic officer.
About $100,000 of the yearly cost is funded by the Kentucky Department of Education, he said.
The program has one principal, a secretary and two teachers. If the students were moved back to high schools, the district would still employ the two teachers because one is required per every 23 students, Peffer said Friday.
In results released just this week, Middle College students performed 3.3 points and 2.9 points above state and district averages (respectively) on the ACT, proof of the program’s success, Superintendent Tommy Floyd said Wednesday.
In other remarks before the board, Debbie Secchio of the Madison County Tax Watch said, “The library board, extension board, health board and ambulance board have said they will not be raising your tax rates.”
Secchio, who is seeking election to the school board, asked the current members to “do what the rest of the county is doing and hold the line.”
One woman who spoke said her son had been bullied by a student and a teacher at school. The abuse was reported to the school principal and the district’s administration but neither addressed the situtation, she said, and she moved her son to a private school.
“I do not support the Madison County School system, and I’m sorry that I have to pay for a broken system. I certainly don’t want to pay any more (for it) than I have to,” she said.
Another hot topic of the hearing was the construction of the $4.6 million sports complex at Madison Central that is nearing completion.
Board chair Mona Isaacs began the hearing with a statement about the sports complex, which has drawn some intense criticism.
“I wanted to take this opportunity to set the record straight,” she said.
The complex did not require a bond issue and has not and will not require an increase in tax revenue, according to Isaacs.
“The funds for this facility have been accumulating in construction and building fund savings since 2007,” she said.
Savings also have been realized by refinancing of construction bonds at lower interest rates, she said, and the district still has enough bonding potential for a new school if needed.
Mark Wilds, another speaker, said the district has “facilities we can be proud of” but if money had not been spent on the sports complex, the board might not be considering a tax hike.
‘Fiscal Facts’ presentation
After public comments, Isaacs gave a presentation on “points we need to take into consideration as we look at the bigger picture of finances in the Madison County school district.”
Her slide show portrayed a growing disparity between state funding and local funding responsibilities over the years.
Some key points included:
• From 2006 to 2012, the district added 675 students.
• State SEEK funding has decreased because local property values have begun to rise.
• Funding burden is shifting from state to local. In 1990, 18 percent of the district’s budget came from locally collected revenue; 33 percent in 2000; and 40 percent in 2010.
• Since 2004, the district has seen a $10-million shortfall in state transportation funding. Transportation is the district’s third largest expense.
• Personnel costs make up 75 percent of the budget.
• In 2009, all of teacher retirement was paid by the state. This year, the district was required to pay $200,000 of the cost. By 2016, teacher retirement is projected to cost the district more than $1.2 million a year
• For classified staff (janitors, food service) retirement, the district paid $600,000 in 2003. This year, it paid $1.8 million
• In 2007, the district paid $30,000 in unemployment insurance. This year, it paid $250,000
• Student/hazard insurance cost the district $800,000 in 2008. This year, they paid $1.1 million
• State funding for textbooks, after-school programs, the Safe Schools program and professional development decreased by $815,266 since 2007
• Federal funds for local schools are declining.
Disputing the ‘Facts’
The notion that local property values had risen, evoked outbursts from the audience. A woman who said she was a real estate agent, a man who was a building contractor and several homeowners said any claim that property values had increased in the district were false.
After being interrupted several times during the presentation, Isaacs said the state requires tax-and-revenue calculations to be based on information from the PVA. The school board does not assess property, she said.
Another point of contention was the distribution of a 1-percent cost-of-living stipend (capped at $600) to employees in 2010-11. The one-time cost to the district was $450,000, Isaacs said.
“We realized that we had teachers that had not had a raise in two years. That was an opportunity for us to try to help our faculty and staff to catch up with cost-of-living increases,” Isaacs said. “Our (employees’) salaries have not kept up with inflation just like the rest of this community … they’re taxpayers too. So we really do understand what the stagnant economy is doing to us.”
In 2008-09, employees received a state-mandated 1-percent cost-of-living adjustment at an annual, recurring cost of $450,000. The money for that increase was promised by the state, but funding never came, Isaacs said.
She said 56 percent of the district’s children live in poverty, a percentage that will probably increase with current economic issues, she said.
“Those 56 percent of children may or may not be from families who own homes and pay property taxes. Meeting their needs takes more support and more services to help them prepare for their future,” she said. “If we don’t invest in our children, who will?”
After the presentation, one citizen said she was “tired of the ‘woe-is-me’ rhetoric” from public schools.
“You can cut costs. We’re all hurting. What other expenses did you not show up there?” she asked.
“I was probably Ms. Secchio to Mr. Floyd last year,” said board member Chris Hager, who joined the board in April. Hager is referring the Tax Watch member who spoke at the hearing and frequently appears before board to question its actions.
Hager said Madison County can be a destination for parents in Kentucky who want an “awesome education” for their children, while keeping taxes low.
“As a business owner in the county, you don’t find waste until your checkbook’s empty, and you only get better when you try to tighten your belt,” he said. “That’s what the board of education is going to try to do.”
Board member John Lackey, known for his scrutiny of district finances, said that there seemed to be “a certain amount of hypocrisy here.”
Although he also did not favor a tax increase, he wanted to point out that there had been about as many people in the lecture hall promoting the controversial sports complex in January as there were Thursday opposing a tax increase, he said.
“I challenge you to come back,” Lackey said. “We get letters promoting programs, these are good things, and yet when we have to pay for them, you come and oppose it.”
This comment met a rumble of disapproval from the audience with one citizen interrupting Lackey.
After Isaacs called for order, Lackey finished by saying, “Each one of you needs to go home and think about it. There are trade offs here.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.