High school funding options, nickel tax discussed
Questions about funding options to build a new high school at Tuesday’s community forum led Woodford County Board of Education members to again discuss past decisions to restrict general fund dollars and the possibility of having to make budget cuts because of an operating deficit. Board member Sherri Springate reiterated her argument that the board would not have to make budget cuts if $950,000 in the general fund, which pays salaries and other operating costs, were un-restricted. “There are no perfect choices here,” said board Chair Debby Edelen. “… We don’t want to leave a deficit, but we also want to have a plan for the biggest need (a new high school) in our community.” In response to a question about the board pursuing another nickel tax to pay for a new high school, which was defeated by a majority of voters in June 2018, board Vice Chair Dani Bradley said, “The nickel tax is the best way to build a high school. That is unquestionable,” which drew applause from teachers and parents attending the forum. “My question is what has changed in our community that would allow people to pass the nickel tax?” A vocal supporter of the nickel tax prior to being elected to the board in November, Bradley said, “I would absolutely be on board with doing a nickel tax again,” if there was evidence showing a sufficient number of people, who voted against the tax, would support a tax hike. Allison Richardson, also elected to the board in November, was a member of the recall petition committee and opposed the nickel tax. She was not present at Tuesday’s forum. “If the superintendent recommended doing a nickel tax and there was a motion on the floor to implement it, I would support that,” said board member Ambrose Wilson IV. “However, quite honestly … I don’t feel confident that the nickel tax would pass.” Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins described the nickel tax as the best option for building a new high school because the dollars generated will also position the district to deal with any future facility needs. He noted residential growth in the county may result in additional facility needs at the elementary and middle schools. A question about the use of general fund dollars to pay for a new high school elicited different responses from Hawkins and Bradley. Hawkins said about six other school districts have used general fund dollars for building projects, according to information he received from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). He said none of the five districts that he contacted before the forum used those funds to build a new high school, and the dollars restricted were only about .5 percent of the general fund budget, compared to the 2 to 3 percent currently being restricted by the Woodford County Board of Education. Bradley said McCracken County restricted $450,000 to build a middle school and restricted funds were used by Fayette County schools to build Frederick Douglass High School. “It is not uncommon for districts to utilize cash to be able to lower the amount that they have to bond (borrow),” said Hawkins in response. He said general fund dollars were not used by Fayette County to make bond payments. Because several of the 50-plus questions submitted in the days before Tuesday’s two-hour community forum were not answered, board members were agreeable to having another forum to answer those questions and additional questions submitted by those attending. The community forum began with Hawkins presenting four funding options to build a new high school and a fifth option that would delay the construction of a new high school while the district waits for its bonding (borrowing) capacity to grow. Each option has benefits and risks, which were explained in a handout given to those attending the forum. The first option includes a restriction of $600,000 in general fund dollars and $292,000 in capital outlay dollars, and would increase the bonding capacity to an estimated $45.175 million to construct a new high school in phases with an auxiliary gym initially and a competition gym to come later. A second option includes a restriction of $950,000 in general fund dollars and $292,000 in capital outlay dollars, and would boost the bonding capacity to an estimated $50.64 million. The risks of both options include not having capital outlay dollars to pay for smaller projects like paving parking lots, and general fund cuts to programs and positions. The board could also opt to pass a recallable nickel tax (that generates an estimated $54.04 million) to pay for a new high school, but this option runs the risk of voters again opposing the tax increase in an election (as happened in June 2018). However, the benefits of option three include building a complete new high school without cutting any programs or positions. Other options include restricting $292,000 in capital outlay funds to increase the bonding capacity to $30.435 million, which could pay for a classroom building or a renovation of the current high school; or waiting for the current bonding capacity of $20.245 million to grow. Waiting would not only lengthen the time before a new high school could be built, but the cost of construction would rise, according to the handout given to those attending the forum. The estimated cost of building a 1,350-student high school would climb from $50 million currently to $59.4 million in 2025, $70.5 million in 2030 and 99.5 million in 2040, said project architect Kevin Locke. He described those estimates as conservative numbers based on the consumer price index. An unknown factor that would bolster the district’s bonding capacity in all five options is the governor’s current budget proposal that includes a substantial increase in the Facilities Support Program of Kentucky (FSPK). For example, if the board did not restrict any general fund or capital outlay dollars, the district’s bonding capacity would climb from $20.245 million to $31.245 million if the state legislature approved the proposed 10 percent hike in FSPK funding for public school districts, according to estimates from fiscal agent Kelly Mrsic of Baird. If an option to renovate the existing high school was pursued, the board would be limited by KDE to spending about $35.6 million (80 percent of the cost for a new high school), Locke explained. He said a renovation would take twice as long as new construction. Woodford County High School senior Ryan Alvey, student representative on the board, said the current high school, with its history of safety issues such as mold and animals or bugs in the building, is “not an environment that you want to learn in.” He said the current high school (opened in 1964) also doesn’t have much natural lighting, which impedes a student’s focus, and does not provide a learning environment that students and teachers deserve.