Thoughts on the Takeover: Raising Taxes for Schools

From 2008 to 2017, local tax revenue to Jefferson County Public Schools increased by 34 percent. State SEEK funding to the district over that time period increased only 1.4 percent.

Included in the justification for the proposed state takeover of JCPS was a criticism that in one year – 2011 – the school board did not approve a local tax increase.

A comprehensive look at funding tells the whole story. Local commitment is up; state commitment is down.

Kentucky’s Constitution requires that the state provide an “efficient system of public schools.” A Supreme Court opinion in 1989 made clear that funding for schools was inadequate, and that the “sole responsibility” for providing for the public schools of the state lies with the legislature. The Court said that the legislature could empower local school boards to enact local taxes to “supplement” the support of the state, but that “such local efforts may not be used by the General Assembly as a substitute for providing an adequate” system throughout the state.

The legislature then enacted comprehensive education reform in 1990 that addressed chronic underfunding.

In recent years, the strong backbone behind that reform has weakened. State revenue provided to local school districts has declined. There has been an uptick during the last few years, but not to match inflation.

From 2008-2017, the Jefferson County school board enacted tax increases five times. During the three most recent years, revenue has increased enough from an improved economy, bringing in additional revenue without the board having to consider raising rates. The other two years – 2011 and 2014 – the superintendent did not propose rate increases and the board accepted those recommendations.

State law allows districts to raise local property tax rates to provide up to 4 percent additional revenue each year without being subject to a voter recall of the tax rate. Each year, the superintendent recommends a rate for board approval after receiving an estimate of tax assessments, and this usually occurs in August. Board members are aware of the cumulative effects of setting rates over time, both on the district finances as well as the taxpayers and the local economy.

I invite anyone who supports tax increases for schools to let their state and local elected officials know. Board members and legislators would appreciate public affirmation for providing adequate funding for schools through local property taxes. The environment around taxes has become more toxic in recent years, making it extremely difficult to sell and vote for increases whether at the local, state or federal level.

When I was on the school board from 2007-2014, the common complaint that came to me in phone calls, emails and letters was that ‘I don’t have kids in school, so I don’t want to pay more school taxes.’

That’s the attitude we need to address: reminding our neighbors that strong schools help us all. It should be a satisfying feeling to know everyone has a stake our community’s schools and there’s something we can do about that – fund them.

The negative drumbeat about public schools – without regard to the many incredible positive stories – contributes to the difficulty of selling the need for more revenue.

Support your local school board when tax time comes around. And, be fair. If you are going to criticize, know all the facts. The stakes are too high for misleading or incomplete information.

Note: The Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funding program is a formula-driven allocation of state funds to local school districts. One of its purposes is to foster funding equity across the districts of the state. To do this, it provides more state funding to districts with lower total property assessments, and less state funding to districts with higher property assessments. As a result, some districts receive most of their overall funding from the state, while others, including Jefferson County, receive most of their overall funding locally. According to JCPS financial reports for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2017, since 1990 state SEEK funding to JCPS has continually decreased from 54.3 percent of the JCPS operating fund’s total revenue in 1990 to just 27.6 percent 2017.

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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2 Responses to Thoughts on the Takeover: Raising Taxes for Schools

  1. Sally Johnson says:

    Excellent points.

  2. Thank you for this. Teachers and parents are starving for some historical context and specifics. I will share this information with many people.

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