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County school board votes 4-1 to take 4 percent tax revenue increase

By JIM BROOKS
Nelson County Gazette / WBRT Radio

Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 — After considerable debate about the district’s funding needs, the Nelson County Board of Education voted 4 to 1 to approve a new tax rate that will generate a 4 percent increase in tax revenue.

Boston-area resident Linda Goodin questioned some of the justification used in support of the board approving a 4 percent tax revenue increase.

The vote followed a public hearing during which only one person spoke in opposition to the tax increase.

The new tax rate was set at 76.4 cents per $100 of property value, which is an increase from last year’s rate of 75.0 cents per $100 of valuation.

Board chair Diane Breeding said she didn’t support setting the rate to take the full 4 percent tax revenue increase. Though there are additional expenses and salaries the board is going to need to fund this coming year, Breeding said she believed the district has a sufficient contingency fund to handle unexpected expenses.

Breeding cast the sole vote against the new tax rate.

“I don’t think we need to do 4 percent,” she told the board. “I think there are too many unknowns, and we’re going to recoup some of those expenses.”

ADDED EXPENSES, LESS STATE REVENUE. In the past few weeks, the board has agreed to support hiring four new school nurses, fund a new School Resource Officer program, and added additional staff to support changes at Horizons, Central Office, and elsewhere in the district.

The district plans to hire four additional school nurses to make a total of nine; it also plans to bill Medicaid for some of the services those nurses will provides to the district’s student population.

Tim Hockensmith, the district’s chief operating officer, answers questions about the district’s finances during Tuesday’s tax hearing and board working session.

The board members recognized the need for more school nurses, but as Hockensmith noted, the additional salaries and benefits will cost the district an additional $180,000 a year. The School Resource Officer program will add another $75,000 to $100,000 in additional expenses the district will need to continue to cover.

Hockensmith explained to the board that theses expenditures — coupled with reductions in state funding and the likelihood the district will be required to significantly increase its pension contributions — were arguments in favor of taking the full 4 percent revenue increase.

In terms of per-pupil spending, Nelson County ranked 150th out of 173 school districts in fiscal 2016, Hockensmith explained. That means that 149 of the state’s school districts spent more money per student than Nelson County did. Taking the full 4 percent tax revenue increase helps the district keep up with rising overall costs, which include teacher and staff step increases.

How the pension crisis will affect the district is a financial unknown, Hockensmith said. With the state unable to provide the additional revenue needed to better fund the separate state retirement systems, he anticipates that school districts will be asked to increase the amount of money they pay into the teacher retirement system.

And Gov. Matt Bevin is asking to hold a special session of the Kentucky General Assembly this fall to address the pension crisis and tax reform — both of which are contentious political topics going into an election year.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know something is going to happen,” he said.

The district’s SEEK (Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky) funding that it receives from the state is expected to be $673,000 less than last year, he explained. The district received nearly $15.2 million in state SEEK money last year; this year’s SEEK estimate is down to about $14.5 million.

Board member Diane Berry voices her support for taking the full 4 percent tax revenue increase, noting the need to provide sufficient funds for a quality education.

Given the district’s known expenses to date — including the new programs and additional staff — Hockensmith said the district may need to dip into its contingency fund prior to the end of the fiscal year in June 2018.

Board member Diane Berry said she supported the 4 percent tax revenue increase.

“There are too many things we don’t have in our district that we need,” she explained.

School activity buses were cut back some years ago, and the buses are a loss that prevents students without transportation from taking advantage of participating in after-school activities. These activities go beyond sports, but also include academic programs.

“I was floored when we stopped doing that,” she said. “I think there are so many parents out there who work and can’t get their kids back to school for activities. They can’t participate if they can’t get a ride home.”

Berry also supported expanding the number of school nurses, and noted that reimbursement through the state Medicaid program isn’t a sure thing to cover all of the district’s costs. She also supported bringing back the School Resource Officer program, and said she would like to see the district have more than one resource officer due to the size of the county and the distance between school buildings.

Board member David Norman said he supported taking the full 4 percent tax revenue increase to help fund the hiring of more school nurses. He said the district has students with health challenges in all of its buildings, and having health professionals in the buildings is a necessity.

Board member Damon Jackey noted that the state’s level of funding to the school district has steadily dropped. In 2008, state money funded 62 percent of the county school district’s budget. In 2016, the state’s funding amounted to just 48 percent of the district’s budget.

The cuts basically mean state government has shifted a share of the costs it once funded to the local school districts, who are then required to either make cuts or try to do more with less funding.

Berry said it was the board’s responsiblity to fund the best education it can afford to local students. Supporting the move to increase tax revenue is one way to support doing that, she said.

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