• Jon McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Hawkins pitches new high school

WHILE WASTE CANS collected water dripping from the Woodford County High School library ceiling, Woodford Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins looked to a Powerpoint display while making another pitch for a new high school – and the property tax hike to pay for it. (Photo by John McGary)

Another public forum to discuss the need for a new high school and how to pay for it was held Thursday, Jan. 11, in the library of the building it would replace.

Fewer than 20 people attended, most of whom were school board members or district employees. Woodford County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins presented many of the same arguments as in previous public meetings.

However, backers of the plan to build a new high school next to Woodford Middle School are now asking for a slightly lower property tax hike – 5.5 cents per $100 in assessed value, rather than 6 cents. The change in strategy came about after some questioned the need to build new athletic fields. The school district has a contract with the Versailles-Woodford County Parks and Recreation Department to use its football/soccer field through 2023.

Hawkins said state education officials use population projections to determine how many students new schools should hold.

“And based on that, even though we believe that we’re going to have some growth in this county, they only allowed us to build a school that would accommodate 1,400 students. And really, that’s about 10 percent more than what we have right now at Woodford County High School,” Hawkins said.

He said renovating the current building, which was constructed in 1964, didn’t make sense over the long term.

“To do major renovations to this building, over a 20-year period, what we would have to spend is about $28 million. Does it make good sense to spend $28 million over a 20-year period on a building that’s 53 years old? Or do you spend about 20 million more – a little less – and get a brand-new building that hopefully would last us another 50 years?” Hawkins asked.

Attendee Ralph Combs asked for reassurance that money raised from the proposed tax hike, which would be voted on by the Woodford County Board of Education, wouldn’t be used for new sports fields.

“I believe you heard (School Board Chair Ambrose Wilson IV) say the board is committed to not undertaking those projects if a new building is built until, I think, the lease were to expire, and I think at that point in time, we’d have to look to see what options are available, and that’s not until 2023,” Hawkins said.

Combs replied, “That’s good enough for me. I compliment you and the board. I think it’s a wise decision …” and said he’d support the plan “130 percent.”

Backers of the plan say that the proposed 5.5 cent per $100 of assessed property value tax hike is the lowest amount that will make the project eligible for matching funds.

M.J. Bakke of Nonesuch said he was concerned about whether the state, considered to be in dire financial straits today, would be able to offer matching funds to raise the district’s bonding capacity.

“That seems to me like a tremendous risk,” Bakke said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a risk. I do think it’s a commitment,” Hawkins said.

In response to another question from Bakke, Hawkins said he’d checked to see if there was a way for the current school board to “sunset” the tax, and was told that while a future board could make that decision, the present board can’t. Bakke noted that other county taxing districts have lowered their property tax rate or kept it the same.

“And you’re turning around and asking the public, ‘Now I want an increase.’ I think it’s a tough sell. I haven’t been convinced yet, but I just think it’s a tough sell because I can’t see everything being met once I go for it,” Bakke said.

Hawkins said Bakke had a valid concern, and that the board had worked to identify a tax rate that would allow them to raise enough money for a new high school without matching state dollars. Woodford County High School Principal Rob Akers also spoke, introducing himself as not just a school official but also the father of a daughter who’d attended elementary, middle and high school here.

“I feel like we’ve done a great job at maxing what we can get out of this school. We’re fortunate to have technology that a lot of schools don’t have. Of course, what we put in our classrooms in teachers and kids isn’t matched anywhere you can drive to in an hour, in my opinion,” Akers said.

Akers identified a long list of facility shortcomings in the present building and its surroundings, and said he believed a new high school, which is projected to cost $46.9 million, was a good investment. (Lexington’s newest school, Frederick Douglass High, which opened last fall, cost $81.4 million, including land and sports facilities.)

“In terms of what the world wants from our kids; for what our kids deserve, for who they’re competing against, our gold standard that we’re giving them instruction we need to meet with facilities,” Akers said.

A final public hearing will be held before the school board decides whether to vote on the tax hike, which is subject to a public recall. It will be held tonight, Thursday, Jan. 18, at 6 p.m. in the WCHS library.

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