Stahler, others explain why they’re ‘Against’ tax hike
Four Woodford Countians leading a campaign opposing a proposed property tax increase to pay for a new high school explained why they are against the 5.5 cent facilities tax last Friday.
Voters will go to the polls for a special election on Tuesday, June 26 to vote “For” or “Against” the nickel tax.
During an interview with The Sun, Hunter Shewmaker said the Woodford County Board of Education needs to pay off its current debt (bonds with an outstanding balance of $26.745 million at the end of last fiscal year) and then “build a new high school without implementing a brand new tax.”
“If this passes,” he continued, “the amount of bonds they’re going to have would be unreal. They’ll be in debt for a very long time.”
Kids attending classes at a new $47 million (estimated cost) high school will be the ones paying off those bonds, which is why Shewmaker and others are against a tax hike to pay for the project, he said.
Woodford County Public Schools still owed balances of $12.45 million for the middle school’s construction, $6.09 million for the Huntertown Elementary School renovation, $4.705 million for the Simmons Elementary renovation, and $3.15 million for the installation of new HVAC systems at Southside and Northside elementary schools, according to an audit of its financial statements for last fiscal year. The maturity dates for paying off those debts are July 2023 for the middle school, 2026 for Simmons and 2027 for the Huntertown, Southside and Northside projects.
Paul Stahler, who has been vocally opposed to a property tax increase to pay for a new high school, and who was schools superintendent when Woodford County Middle School was built, said the circumstances were different when a (non-recallable) property tax hike was implemented to replace a middle school built in 1927. He said the former middle school did not have an HVAC system and did not have air conditioning in its gym.
“The main structure – take away the (new) wings on the end – was just in bad condition,” said Stahler. “…To me it’s a whole different set of circumstances.”
Parents involved with a grassroots (I Support Our Schools) movement say they support a tax increase because of the need for a new Woodford County High School, which opened in 1964, to better meet the educational needs of students.
Allison Richardson, whose son will be a freshman at WCHS in August, said she has no concerns about him going to the current high school.
Her daughter was a student there for four years and she never voiced any complaints about the condition of the building.
Now, Richardson said she hears complaints about mold, bathrooms and flooding at WCHS and doesn’t understand why none of those problems were raised by her daughter in four years.
“If that building is maintained the way it’s supposed to be maintained,” said Richardson, “they can definitely get another 10 years or 15 or 20 years out of it.”
Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins has said the earliest the district could build a new high school without a tax hike to increase its bonding potential would be 2028.
When asked if there are more people against the proposed property tax increase than what’s being heard at public forums or perceived in the community, Richardson said, “I’m surprised by the number of people who will not publicly endorse, but privately will endorse us.”
People have told Richardson that they’re afraid to put an “Against” sign in their yards or speak out against the proposed tax hike on social media “because it has been brutal,” she said.
“They’re really getting bad on both sides – not just theirs, but ours too,” added Shewmaker, former Woodford County EMS director.
During its successful recall petition drive to put the school tax issue before the voters, John Varner said a lot of people who would not sign the petition, told “us that they would vote against” the proposed 5.5 cent (per $100 of assessed property value) tax increase.
“I definitely think it’s going to be a very close vote,” said Richardson. “This whole community is passionate about this,” but acknowledged that a lot of people just don’t know about the proposed property tax hike and upcoming election.
Still, Shewmaker predicted, “I think we’ll have a better turnout for this special election than (we did for) the primary” in May. “If it’s a high turnout that means we did our job,” he added, alluding to the successful recall petition drive.
When asked why he did not attend any of the public forums hosted by the school board to get feedback on a proposed tax hike to pay for a new high school, Stahler said, “…I just stay away from it. I don’t want to hear it. It’s a past part of my life. Some of the things I agree with.
Some of the things I don’t agree with.” He described his personality as “go against the grain on stuff,” and said he would never have recommended the school board hold a special election – instead of placing the tax hike issue on the general election ballot in November – because of the expense to taxpayers. “In my mind you can’t defend that,” he added. “It’s $72,000.”
Hawkins and board members have been told the price tag on building a high school will likely increase because of higher interest rates and construction costs if the project is delayed. Stahler said, “That’s pure speculation.”
Regardless of the fate of the current high school building – whether it remains a high school for the next several years or is repurposed for other uses, Shewmaker said, “… they’re still going to have to pump millions into that high school.”
Hawkins has said if the building is repurposed that cost will be spread out over several years rather than being one big hit.
While Stahler knows money in the district’s contingency fund will not cover the cost of building a new high school, he said he doesn’t understand why the district has built up an 11.6 percent rainy day fund. “Why not spend it on the kids right now?” he asked. “…Why not hire another teacher” so there’s no need for split-grade classes? Or, he added later, why not take $3 million out of contingency to improve the high school building?
Stahler later acknowledged his approach to how he handled things as schools superintendent was totally different than that of Hawkins, but said his involvement in the campaign “Against” the proposed property tax increase is about the issue – and nothing personal.
Richardson said she hopes the community can heal from the divisions created by the school tax issue and will have coffee with “a staunch supporter of the ‘For’ side,” after the special election on June 26.