The McCreary County Board of Education unanimously passed a “nickel tax” increase during last week’s meeting.
While that could mean property owners in the County could see higher tax bills in the near future, school district officials say the increase is needed to make repairs and renovations to school buildings.
According to Kentucky Revised Statute 157.440, the adoption of the tax allows the District to participate in the Facility Support Program, which allows districts to receive additional funding for construction and repair projects. The amount of “equalization” money from the state is determined by a formula based on student population and income. The McCreary county School District could receive up to an additional $3 for every $1 generated from the tax.
Any funding generated from the additional levy would be restricted toward repair, renovation and construction of new facilities.
Despite the passage Thursday night, there remains a possibility that the tax could be recalled if enough citizens call for a county-wide vote to be held on the question.
With the implementation of the tax a 45-day window opened for the possibility of a recall election being held, which would eliminate the tax increase.
According to Kentucky Revised Statute 132.017: if a petition containing the names of 10 percent of registered voters in the last Presidential Election is turned in to the County Clerk’s office within the established time frame – a special election would be held to allow for citizens in the County to vote to accept the tax or reject it.
The Board of Education could also vote to rescind the tax. If they choose to do so, the tax rate automatically reverts to the 4-percent rate, but the District would lose out on equalization funding.
County Clerk Eric Haynes confirmed Monday that his office has already been contacted by citizens regarding the procedures to circulate such a petition.
According to the Kentucky Department of Education of 601 school districts two have adopted the nickel tax since February (Woodford and Campbellsville). At least four additional districts (Lewis, Lawrence, Henderson and Marion) have attempted to adopt the tax over the past year, with both Henderson and Marion successfully defending the tax in a recall election.
Prior to the regular meeting, the Board held a public forum to hear input from the community on the proposed tax as mandated by law.
District Finance Officer Michelle King started the hearing by reading a statement outlining the proposed tax, and what it could be used for if adopted.
King stated the average homeowner would only see an increase of about $16, and the average business owner would see an increase of about $91.
Before the hearing began, members of the public were informed that if they wished to present comments regarding the tax they would have to sign up to do so, and they would be limited to two minutes to speak.
Once the meeting was convened, Board Chairman Brandon Kidd stated the express purpose of the hearing was to hear public comments, and the Board of Education would not be addressing the public at that time.
Only one citizen, Darlene Price, had requested to speak, and questioned several items.
Price asked about the Board’s surplus of $1.7 million in the budget, Superintendent Mike Cash’s salary, money spent renovating the Board Office and noted she had heard from several citizens who expressed fear that they could not state their opinion over fear of possible reprisals from the Central Office.
Price’s questions were met with silence, as the Board had already stated they would not be speaking during the hearing.
Price noted their silence did not look favorably on the Board, as they seemed to ignore the public opinion.
“That’s not a good perception,” she said.
While the questions were not directly answered at that time, Board Chairman Brandon Kidd did address the concerns later in the meeting.
He noted, the “surplus” she had questioned was actually the contingency fund the District is required to maintain.
By state law, each school District is mandated to keep at least 2 percent of their annual budget total in reserve to cover any unforeseen large expenses that may occur throughout the year. The McCreary County Board of Education adopted a policy two years ago to maintain a five-percent contingency, which amounts to about $1.5 million. Some Districts, it was stated, carry up to 10-percent contingency funds.
“Yes, it is true we have more money in our budget than we did two years ago,” Kidd said. “But we are not having to make millions of dollars in cuts every year like we had to do.”
Kidd also addressed the Finance Officer question, stating the District has only one, Michelle King, while Bill Boyd serves as a part time management consultant. Boyd, who had served as Finance Officer for the Pulaski County School District for 17 years, also works part time for the Kentucky Department of Education, assisting other school districts with their financial issues. Boyd, it was noted, only works up to 100 days for the year, and is paid only about one third of the salary if he would be a full-time employee.
Superintendent Cash addressed the next question, regarding his salary.
He affirmed he is working both as Superintendent, and as Principal of the McCreary Academy, but is only paid one salary for doing both jobs.
He noted his agreement with the Board when he was hired was to do both jobs without any added benefits, and at a lower salary than previous administrations.
According to the Kentucky Department of Education, which lists the salaries of all Superintendents in the state, Cash is paid an annual salary of $107,534 with no additional days.
Cash gave an impassioned address to the crowd, outlining the hopes of the District and Board to provide safe and modern facilities for the betterment of the students.
Comparing the conditions of the school to the now-closed McCreary County Detention Center, Cash stated he felt if nothing was done to fix the issues at those schools, they could possibly end up being closed in the future.
“We lost a jail because we didn’t keep it up,” Cash said. “This is for the safety and security of the kids.”
Cash also addressed many rumors on recent social media posts calling them “fake news” spread by disgruntled ex-employees or others with agendas against him and the Board.
Before the tax question was called to a vote, Assistant Superintendent Aaron Anderson outlined the proposal for the District’s new facility plan.
Kentucky law stipulates a school district must update their plan every four years – detailing planned or projected construction projects.
An architect and engineers from the state visited the various buildings in the District to provide input on what repairs and improvements need to be made to the facilities.
Anderson stated a committee of 20 individuals, consisting of members of the District and citizens, worked together to examine the findings of the report and detail a projected plan to prioritize needed repairs and construction.
The panel listed three projects as top priority, meaning the District must attempt to do those projects first before undertaking any other items in the plan.
The three priorities identified were new roofing at the high school and Pine Knot Primary School and the construction of a new science wing at the middle school.
The roofs were considered a priority as both schools have developed leakage from the old roofs, and could present a risk to students health and safety if not fixed.
The wing at the middle school is part of a longer-ranged plan to move sixth grade classes to the facility. The new construction would include new science labs, two classrooms, band room and a technology area.
Anderson explained the existing science labs at the school were outdated and non-functional, and with an increased emphasis on science from the Kentucky Department of Education, the school needed the new facility.
The addition would also free up classroom space in the main building, thus allowing for the eventual addition of sixth grade students.
The three projects’ estimated costs amount to about $7 million.
Additional possible projects included in the facility plan include renovations to PKP, PKI and high school as well as improvements to the central office and maintenance facilities to make them handicapped accessible and the construction of a new bus garage.
Those additional projects, which are considered a lower priority, could not be considered until the first priorities were taken care of.
In all, Anderson estimated the total cost for all projects would be about $26 million.
Near the conclusion of the nearly 3-hour meeting, the tax issue finally came before the Board for a vote.
Kidd motioned to approve the tax, stating he was doing so for his children, and other children in the school system.
“I made a pledge eight years ago to do my best for the kids of this District,” Kidd said.
“I have two kids in this District that are going to be here a little longer. That building has got to be there.”
Board member Nelda Gilreath, who has served for 12 years on the Board said the decision to raise the tax had been weighing on her mind for the past couple months, but felt it was the right thing to do at this time.
“I’ve not voted for an increase since I’ve been here,” Gilreath said. “But, can I look at these kids when the roof started leaking?”
Debbie Gibson, who has also been an opponent of tax increases in the past, said it was a difficult decision for her as well, but read an email she had received from someone in her District commending her for making a tough and unpopular decision in the interest of the students.
“I believe the people that voted for me will know I do the best for these kids,” she said.
The vote passed 5-0, and the meeting was adjourned.
The next regular scheduled meeting of the McCreary County Board of Education will be on Thursday, May 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Office.