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WHAT WE THINK: Flat tax rate not permanent solution for Shelby County schools

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There will be no tax property tax increase for Shelby County Public Schools this year, but that's not going to be a long-range remedy to all the problems schools face.

Wen we learned last week that Shelby County Public Schools Superintendent James Neihof planned to ask the school board to approve a .5 of a cent compensating rate on tax increases, our first reaction was that this was an astounding accomplishment in this day of expanding educational needs and contracting resources.

But, now, to understand that Mr. Neihof has recalculated and believes he can present a balanced budget with no tax increase, we are beyond astounded.

Let us repeat that: If approved by the school board on Thursday night, Shelby County’s property tax rate for education will remain at 71.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

No change. Not even that baseline, half-of-a-cent.

Since educational reform under KERA in 1990, that hasn’t happened in Shelby County, we understand, and we doubt it has happened in very many other counties, either.

Taxes and schools have been a volatile issue in recent years. It was a pivotal topic in Shelby County’s school board elections of 2012, and arguably it cost one incumbent his re-election.

That Mr. Neihof and the budget committee that was created last winter and charged with a very fine review were able to overcome many obstacles and reach this point was no simple execution of addition and subtraction, as some critics might suggest.

In fact, we can’t imagine how a growing school district could operate year after year without raising taxes in the face of declining revenues without negatively affecting the quality of education in the classrooms by cutting teachers, increasing ratios and falling behind in the all-important elements of technology and creative learning processes to ensure all students are college and career ready.

 

A variety of issues

School districts are, as you well know, fighting a significant set of problems beyond their control:

Per-student funding from the state has dropped about 11 percent since 2007-08.

Federal funding has begun to diminish because of politics.

Property values have not grown or even stayed flat, with the Property Valuation Administrator rating real estate in Shelby County down by about .2 percent for tax purposes heading into 2014. District officials say that, even with the half-a-cent compensating rate, the district’s revenue would be about $900,000 less than the previous year’s

Student population is growing at a steady if not spectacular rate.

But Mr. Neihof had promised when this process began to present a balanced, tax-neutral budget. He has delivered, even minus the compensating rate increase that would have cost property owners of a $100,000 piece of property only $5 a year – or about the cost of one cup of latte.

 

Schools need help

We expect that since the original rate plan was announced last Thursday Mr. Neihof has received earfuls and eyefuls of advice and commentary. We expect his critics were lining up to speak at the board meeting, to criticize this rate for whatever reason seemed appropriate.

But we also hope those same critics are lining up at the offices of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Vanceburg), state Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) and state Rep. Brad Montell (R-Kentucky).

Because if it is Mr. Neihof’s responsibility to address this budget, we would suggest that our elected leaders remember that it is theirs as well. We don’t expect any remedy soon on the federal side, because “sequestration” allows political opponents too many opportunities to point fingers at one another without actually doing anything tangible.

But 2014 is a budget year for the state legislature, and it’s time the General Assembly understood that it no longer can continue to slash state funding for students without teachers losing their jobs, college entrance test scores declining significantly and education in fact being dumbed down more than it sometimes seems to be.

Not every budget cut made in Frankfort has to include pain for schools, and Mr. Hornback and Mr. Montell need to understand that Shelby Countians who complain about increases in property taxes for schools expect the state to do its part with the tax money it receives. The trend is not appropriate.

We know Mr. Montell is a booster of the charter school programs used in many other states. We don’t have enough information about how such schools might be applied in Kentucky to understand if this is a good or bad idea, but our observation is that the altruistic pluses of such systems historically have been lost by money grabs on the private side. Some students have benefitted, but the scorecard is not very even, and in the long run these schools also may drain further resources from public schools.

 

Scary consequences

Until such an option becomes part of the dichotomy of educating our young people, we have to return to the basic funding structure of state and local taxes with some federal subsidy. There are bills to be paid – and we would add to this point that teachers are compensated significantly below an appropriate level – and revenue must be generated in the future. We fear the consequences.

We have read so many stories about school districts going broke or taking significant swipes at the quality of schools and education that we are fearful that a look-the-other-way approach in the General Assembly and a hard-line approach to taxes locally would force those plights on Shelby County as well.

We already have lost in this tighter budget year at least one music teacher, and we fear other cuts to arts, sports and extracurricular and development programs that go so far to help each student grow, prosper and earn their way to colleges.

Our students’ tests scores are for the most part holding their own, with some declining and some increasing. But that likely can’t continue without investments in technology.

 

Will goal be reached?

On Thursday, we trust that the critics who rise to speak against tax increases will be armed with suggestions.

And we expect that standing to support a rate increase would be the cadre of retired teachers who were upset when the budget reduced their compensation rate and the board agreed – appropriately, we would suggest – to compromise on the reduction and also add back some dollars to offset classroom ratio growth at the county’s high schools. Those retired teachers should not have blanched at a half-cent increase.

That conundrum added to the cost of education in the coming year, and somehow this year that can be balanced without a tax increase. But we doubt that will happen again.

Elected leaders often equate success in their roles with creating new jobs, so perhaps they should look at the situation this way:

Shelby County Public Schools is our biggest industry, employing more people and affecting more than any other. The product it produces, too, are perhaps the most valuable in the county – at least we often say that our young people are our most important commodity.

Our shared goal is to graduate each student ready for a college, the military or a career with stable and adequate income.

Will we be able to reach that goal?