Jim Waters: Some school districts hiking taxes despite rising property values, revenues
If, as Assistant Principal Kevin Crosby claimed when the new $84.5 million Tates Creek High School opened in Lexington on the first day of school, “students deserve a building like this,” then didn’t Fayette County taxpayers also deserve a better case from their local board of education before it voted to raise property tax rates again?
Simply claiming current revenues are insufficient to meet the district’s educational and capital needs doesn’t cut it. Solid verification is needed.
A favorite talking point of those supporting increased taxes centers on how the district has a serious overcrowding problem, resulting in 2,500 students learning in portable classrooms.
Which begs the question: Why isn’t the current budget of nearly a half-billion dollars – larger than the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s spending plan – sufficient to meet Fayette schools’ needs?
The Fayette tax hike stands in sharp contrast to other districts’ acknowledgement that there’s no need to further soak taxpayers when increased property values already mean more money for their coffers.
The Covington Independent Public Schools lowered its property tax rate by a whopping 17% this year while conceding it will still get increased revenues due to rising property values.
Annette Burtschy, Covington’s finance director, told the Northern Kentucky Tribune: “the board has been good stewards of taxpayer money,” adding the district didn’t raise property tax rates between 2012 and 2020.
By contrast, taxpayers should be wary of the Fayette district’s demonstrated lack of enthusiasm for being transparent with – much less accountable for – the way the public’s hard-earned dollars get tossed around.
Why, for example, did it take the district three weeks to respond to an open records request from the Lexington Herald-Leader regarding the cost of renting out the Central Bank Center for a summer party for employees that cost taxpayers tens of thousands?
The Fayette school board certainly displayed a similar lack of enthusiasm for accountability in a special-called meeting on Sept. 8, limiting some speakers to two minutes’ worth of comments while denying others the opportunity to comment altogether before voting 4-1 to raise taxes.
This isn’t to say the board violated law by limiting speakers; recent state legislation simply requires school boards provide a total of 15 minutes for audience participation. It’s up to local boards how they dole out the time.
Rather, the issue is the school board has neither justified a tax hike nor been forthcoming about how it spends – or at least prioritizes the spending of – taxpayer dollars, as addressed in the following questions:
Why is there overcrowding when the district spent more than $20 million to purchase the former Herald-Leader building and high-priced property from the family of a wealthy developer? Nearly 165,000 square feet of district-owned space now sits empty on a plot of more than 40 acres.
With teachers complaining about roof leaks and other building-maintenance issues, why isn’t the district better maintaining its current facilities rather than purchasing additional unused ones?
Many other Kentucky school districts are foregoing – or even lowering – taxes while still getting increased revenues due to rising property values. Is it unreasonable to expect Fayette schools to do the same? As Lexington businessman Ron Vissing noted, even if the school board kept tax rates the same this year, the district would still get $19 million in additional revenue.
In 2019, the General Assembly passed legislation providing an opportunity for greater success with tax-recall efforts in Jefferson and Fayette counties, allowing electronic gathering of – and significantly lowering the number of required – signatures.
Vissing, who led an unsuccessful effort to recall a Fayette school tax increase in 2018 despite gathering 12,000 signatures, said “it was impossible to do a recall” under the old rules.
This time, he says a successful effort will only require about 5,000 signatures.
The key is for taxpayers to understand: Defeating a tax increase doesn’t mean reduced funding for Fayette schools.
It just means they haven’t even come close to making the case for yet another tax increase.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at [email protected] and @bipps on Twitter.