Hawkins promotes new high school, tax hike
About 20 people attended a Thursday, Aug. 31, meeting at Woodford County High School to hear schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins pitch a new high school and a tax hike to pay for it. The meeting was held in the school library, and several of the attendees were district employees. Hawkins employed a PowerPoint display and several large mock-ups of the proposed school and recently built high schools in Clark and Boyd counties. The presentation was Hawkins's third, after recent addresses to the Versailles and Midway city councils, and was followed by another before Woodford Fiscal Court on Tuesday. Hawkins said the Woodford County School Board showed great foresight in 2012 when they purchased 61 acres of land adjacent to Woodford County Middle School for the sole purpose of building a new high school. "So, if a new high school were to be constructed there, we would have a 95-acre campus with a middle school and a high school right there next to each other," he said. A new high school is needed in the near future in part, he said, because the present high school opened in 1964. Despite renovations in 1981 and 1996, he said, "The core of this building is 53 years old, and if we really want to try to attack and work with our students on 21st-century skills, we need some updated space." Hawkins said that space should be more flexible and allow barriers between classrooms to be removed, and that updated science and engineering labs were also needed. He said a recent tour of Fayette County's brand-new Frederick Douglass High School revealed a smaller central library with extra space in classrooms in each wing of the building for mini-libraries. Putting a new high school next to the middle school would benefit students and teachers at both, he said. "You think about the possibilities of our middle school and high school to be able to share facilities, to be able to share resources, to be able to share programs. And I think the possibilities there are pretty endless," he said. Hawkins said currently the district's bonding capacity won't allow for planning for a new high school for more than another decade, while the present building would need renovations and upgrades. A 6-cents per $100 dollars "facilities tax" would produce funds available only for new construction and renovation, generate state matching funds, and, if passed soon, allow for a new high school to open in the fall of 2020, he said. The tax hike would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $60 per year in school taxes. "I am not trying to minimize a tax increase. I know for many people in our community, that would be a difficult thing to ask. But I think what we have to look at it as, this is a 50-year investment in our community," Hawkins said. New high schools in Central Kentucky use more natural light, which is healthier for the students, with wider hallways, taller ceilings and an updated food lab, he said. If a new high school is built, the present building could be used to house the Board of Education's central office, additional pre-school classes, and the alternative school and adult education programs, he said. "You might ask, 'Why wouldn't we do it at the new building? Why would we do it here?' A lot of that is simply about location. When you think about where those manufacturing places are located, it's literally right down the street. And so to be able to have that kind of partnership that close, it makes sense to do it here," Hawkins said. After a 17-minute presentation, Hawkins asked if attendees had any questions. Nicole Florence, who said she had one child in high school and another in elementary school here, said there are about 1,260 students in high school now and wondered if the new high school's projected capacity of 1,400 students would be enough. Hawkins said the school board's most recent facilities plan asked for a 1,500-student building, which state Department of Education officials said was too large. They did allow a construction plan for a new school with 10 percent over present capacity, which is 1,280, making the capacity for a new school 1,400. Hawkins said there are only 400 more students district-wide than the system had in 1975. The state includes population projections in their plan, he said, and Education Department officials said the matter could be revisited. "I do believe they would allow us to have that conversation with them if we've got some of that development already beginning as we go through this process," Hawkins said. Kim O' Reel, who said she had two children who'd graduated from Woodford County High School, asked how much it will cost to renovate the present high school for the purposes outlined by Hawkins. He said he didn't know if an extensive renovation would be needed, in part because classrooms would be used as office space, and that if the building wasn't full of students, needed upgrades could be performed over time. Pattie Wilson, director of the Versailles-Midway-Woodford County Planning Commission and a member of the school district's long-range planning committee, asked about possible revenue from the present central office. Hawkins said it was possible, but deed restrictions on the Pisgah Pike property, some of which are more than a century old, would have to be navigated. Several of the questions about the new school and tax hike to pay for it came from Magistrate Mary Ann Gill (Dist. 6). "What would this tax (increase) look like years from now, if you started at six percent?" she asked. Hawkins said it would have to remain in place until the bond for the new high school was paid off, which is typically a 20-year period. At that point, the Board of Education could roll it back or reduce it based on the district's other needs. Gill asked whether that meant the increase would remain at six cents per $100 over that period, or if the school board could raise it further. Hawkins said the board sets a tax rate each year, with the current rate being 66.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. Later, Gill noted that property values are higher and other local taxes have been increased. "And the fact that the fastest-growing population in Woodford County are retirees, and we have a lot of low-income people here who are renters, and it's (the school tax increase) going to affect every one of them. Everybody's rent is going to go up. What do you say to them?" Gill asked. Hawkins responded that he knew a tax is never popular, but believed what needs to be decided is what's right for students. "This building has educated, basically, five generations. ... And when you look at the investment (a new high school) is for our community, I think it outweighs the tax increase. I also would say that the school district is one of the biggest economic development tools in any community, and when people are looking to relocate to this community or businesses are looking to relocate to this community, the school system is one of the driving forces," Hawkins said.