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Shelby County School Board: Vote change leads to tax increase

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Jackson, Mathis swing approval of 2.6 percent

By Todd Martin

In a first-it-failed-but-then-it-passed vote that occurred after one board member’s comments persuaded another to change her vote, the Shelby County Board of Education voted to raise the real estate and personal property by 2.6 percent.

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After about a dozen people spoke at Thursday’s meeting – all but one against the increase – the board voted down the 1.8-cent increase, 3-2. Brenda Jackson, Allen Phillips and chair Eddie Mathis voted against, and Doug Butler and Sam Hinkle voted in favor.

However, after a short recess, a series of questions from Hinkle seemed to have swayed Jackson.

Hinkle’s remarks reiterated several points brought up earlier in the meeting, including:

  • Reconfirming that the state is decreasing its level of funding for districts.
  • That the proposed rate is actually a decrease in revenue from what the district earned last year, when including federal and state funding.
  • The district has worked to trim the budget to exclude waste, as confirmed by an independent audit.

“If we have to do this tonight [the deadline for changing the rate was Sunday], then we don’t have enough time,” Jackson said. “I’m changing my vote.”

That, in essence, passed the motion, although Mathis also changed his vote, backing up what he had said earlier in the meeting about “not wanting a three-two vote but more of a consensus” from the board. Phillips did not change his “no” vote.

This increase pushes the school board’s tax rate to 71.5 cents per $100 of assessed value on real estate and personal property. The motor vehicle tax rate, 46.5 cents per $100, and utility tax rate of 3 percent remain the same. Because the tax increase provides less than a 4 percent increase in revenue, it does not require a public vote.

The median value of homes in Shelby County has dropped according to the 2010 U.S. Census to about $169,500, down from about $180,000.

The proposed increase in taxes on a median value home would be about $30.50 per year.

Superintendent James Neihof requested 2.6 percent specifically to cover the $110,000 that the district is losing in state funding and the cost to cover two additional days of professional development for teachers.

The rate will provide the district with about $98,000 less revenue in general property tax because of declining property values in the county, but the additional revenue for the general fund will be almost $698,000. The building fund will see an increase of about $11,500 to a total of $4.84 million, bringing the projected local revenue for the district up to about $24.29 million, including the building fund, which is required by the state and can only be spent on capital projects.

After the meeting, Jackson said she struggled with changing her vote, but in the end it was all she could do.

“A lot of the questions asked [by the public] were the same questions I had,” she said. “I was torn, because I really wanted us to try to get by on the compensation rate [which the state set at a .01-cent increase to 69.8 cents], but that really wasn’t going to be compensatory because of all the other cuts.”

Jackson said she intends to make sure the district doesn’t fall in this do-it-now situation again.

“At the next meeting, I’m going to propose that we have a separate series of meetings to look at all our programs and make sure we’re only doing things that work, and I want us to have this meeting [voting on the tax rate] earlier. We need to listen to the comments [from the public] and make sure we have plenty of time to discuss, if we need it.”

Those who had spoken during the meeting cited several reasons that the district should look at to refrain from raising taxes, and after the changed votes, they appeared a bit shocked. Comments of “nice show” and “what theatrics” rang out in Collins High School’s library.

Two of the speakers are challenging the board in more than just an open forum: Karen Sams and Kurt Smith pursuing seats on the board in this November’s election. It’s the second time Sams has run against Hinkle and the first for Smith, who is running against Jackson.

Smith cited the district’s 15 percent increase from 2008 through 2012 against an inflation rate of just 6.2 percent.

“We are in no way through these difficult times,” he said. “Families are having to make difficult decisions. At this time, you should take a step back with an unbiased eye and look at the programs in place and see if they are working.”

Sams noted that what appears to be a minor increase will still be difficult.

“I know it seems like a small amount, but we can’t afford it,” she said.

Two of the most passionate speeches came from two people involved in the school district.

Simpsonville teacher Carol Saive produced a passionate speech about how she, as a single adult, has trouble paying her bills despite a 22-year career as a teacher.

However, Collins senior Liam Bakerdid not agree with the increase.

Stint, an AP student, pointed to several items he perceives as wasteful, including MAP testing, which he called “a waste of time” and a “redundant test.”

“My education is entrusted to you, as is their money,” he told the board. “I don’t want it [the increase], and they don’t want it, so that only leaves you.”

School capacity report

With 6,750 students enrolled for the 2012-13 school year, the district is the largest it has ever been, but it does still have room to grow, especially at middle and high school levels.

The elementary schools are by far the most crowded this year, with the six schools operating at 91.6 percent capacity. Simpsonville is the most crowded and only school over capacity, at 103.7 percent. Painted Stone is just behind it at 99.3 percent, and Clear Creek is close, as well, at 95.7 percent. Southside, Heritage and Wright are all at less than 84 percent.

East and West middle schools are well under capacity, at 85.1 percent and 72.4 percent, respectively.

Collins and Shelby County also both have plenty of room to grow at 79.7 and 82.1 percent, respectively.

Also at the meeting, the board:

  • Recognized the county’s Governor’s Scholars.
  • Hinkle reminded Neihof and the staff that the board remained interested in a report on the eligibility requirements for extra-curricular activities. The staff said that report would be presented at the meeting on Sept. 13.
  • Neihof noted in his meeting that the state accountability test, KPREP, scores, will be released in October, and the district administration will have several reports on the tests and how to read the results and their consequences leading up to the publication of the results.