Voters ‘Against’ school tax hike
By a margin of 316 votes in Tuesday’s special election, Woodford County residents voted against a ballot measure to raise property taxes by 5.5 cents in order to build a new high school and meet other facility needs.
The vote totals were 3,758 “Against” (52.19 percent) and 3,442 “For” (47.81 percent). Turnout was 34.2 percent, up from 32.4 percent in the May 22 primary, with more absentee ballots cast than in a typical election.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” said schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins. “I think our folks worked extremely hard. I can’t say enough about the volunteers who have been a part of this campaign and the amount of hours that they’ve put in, and the commitment from the (school) board.
“I think we campaigned hard. We tried to get our message out there,” he continued, “but the voters have made that determination” not to pay a facilities tax.
Hawkins acknowledged “any time you’re asking for a tax increase – that’s a hard ask. We thought that we presented a tangible reason for that tax increase. (A new high school) would benefit our students. It’s something that would benefit our community, but it’s still a tax increase…”
Hawkins’ immediate predecessor, Paul Stahler, was an outspoken critic of the tax increase.
“I’m really kind of stunned,” said Stahler of the results. “I thought it would be close, but people just made a decision” that they didn’t want to pay more taxes. He said giving the voters an opportunity to decide whether they wanted to pay a tax for a new high school was always the aim of the tax recall petition committee he chaired.
“We were outmanned, we were outspent, pretty much out everything, but the people decided and that’s what we wanted,” said Stahler.
“We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish (as a committee) – and that was put it before the people and they made the decision, and that’s the way it ought to be,” he added.
Several of the stronger supporters on both sides waited outside the Woodford County Clerk’s office for election results.
The issue was perhaps the most controversial in Woodford County in several years, a fact reflected in the opinion of voters at the polls. Midway resident Marcia Endicott, a retired teacher, said she voted for the 5.5 cent (per $100 of assessed property value) tax hike because she wants her six grandchildren to attend a nicer high school. As part of the first graduating class of Woodford County High School, she said that building had problems then.
“We try to offer every program possible for our children,” Endicott said, “and I’d like for them to have a school that’s built well and will give them what they need.”
Danielle Stanback, who graduated from WCHS in 2001, described her position on the tax to build a new high school as “kind of in-between.”
“I’m all for a new high school because things change over the years and this (building) is kind of outdated, but I don’t like the way (the school board) planned to fund it. I disagree with that,” she said after voting Tuesday morning at WCHS.
“…you have a lot of elderly people who are retired, or people getting ready to retire or some people even on disability … that can’t afford a gigantic jump (in property tax),” she added.
Several voters at the two precincts in the present high school said they preferred not to share their votes or views, while one man said with a smile that he didn’t want to be beat up. An older woman there said that she’d been married for 51 years and that she and her husband “don’t even tell each other” how they voted.
Gay Fugate, a widow living on social security with only one school-age grandchild (she will begin her senior at WCHS in August), said she viewed voting for the school tax as an opportunity to support future generations of students.
Woodford County resident Lois Robinette said she voted against the tax because “it affects all of us.” But her biggest concern, as a former landowner who plans to buy another house in the county, has to do with local farmers already struggling to pay their bills. “It’s not like (farming is) a big moneymaker, but they do it because they love it. And we need those farmers and we need to be able to support them. …”
Fugate said she went on a tour of WCHS, which opened in 1964, to see the condition of the building, and came away believing, “they definitely need a new school.”
Versailles resident Rosalee Taylor agreed. “It’s just old. And it needs to be upgraded or a new one built,” she explained.
“If the upgrades would be too much,” she added, “a new one would be better – all the way around.”
Given the condition of the building and how much it would cost to fix it, Fugate said it makes more sense to build a new high school with improved classroom facilities for students.
In April, the Woodford County Board of Education voted unanimously to hold a special election on its proposed 5.5 cent facilities tax. Its vote came days after a recall petition opposing the proposed tax increase was successful in getting 1,454 signatures (at least 1,377 signatures were needed to put the issue on the ballot).
When the petition drive was ruled valid, voter Rob Pochiba said the Woodford County Board of Education should have dropped the matter rather than spending $50,000 to $60,000 to hold a special election.
In April, Stahler, who chaired the recall committee, said those who opposed the board’s decision to implement a facilities tax wanted to give voters a voice on the proposed tax hike. “…I’m not opposed to the school,” he said. “Just give the public the opportunity to say yea or nay (on a facilities tax) … And that’s the feeling of the committee.”
Earlier this month, Hawkins said without a facilities tax that a new high school could not be considered for at least another 12 years. “That means next year’s kindergarten students – the class of 2021 – would not see a new high school,” he said. “… Only the additional revenue generated from the facilities tax puts us in that position,” where the district has sufficient bonding/borrowing capacity to build a new high school (estimated cost of $46 to $47 million) in about three years.
Hunter Shewmaker, who served on the recall committee, told The Sun earlier this month that 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.”
One voter, who did not want to be identified, agreed that the district’s debt is “too big already to add to it…”
Hawkins has acknowledged that building a new high school will “substantially increase” the district’s debt. He also pointed out that a similar situation existed between 2002 and 2006 when he said the district’s debt tripled (from $14 million to about $42 million) with the construction of a new middle school and renovations of Huntertown and Simmons elementary schools. “It’s not uncommon when you take on a big project – and a district will take on no larger project than a new high school,” he said.
Woodford County mom Tefany Bleuel, who along with her husband Kevin wrote two letters to the editor on the tax increase, described the money issue – as “a non-issue to us.
“It’s about a new school and it’s about our kids,” she said. “It’s not even about my kid, because my kid won’t even see the school, but it’s about the kids in this community.”