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School tax increase approved

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By Geoff Hamill

Some were for it, and some were against it. Either way, about 30 people turned out to see what decision the Washington County School Board would make on the proposed school tax increase.

As proposed, the increase would take school taxes on property in Washington County from 50.8 cents to 52.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. That increase would mean another $21 in taxes per year based on a home valued at $100,000. The other option the board had was to accept the compensating rate, which would generate the same amount of revenue as last year’s tax rate, but would provide no addition money to be put toward education or facilities. Ruth Ann Cocanougher, the school system’s finance officer, told those in attendance that if the increase was approved, 11.6 cents of the 52.9-cent tax would automatically go into the system’s building fund, while the remaining 41.3 cents would go toward operations and instruction.

As the meeting began, a list of names on a sign-up sheet determined who would speak in what order. Len Spaulding, a local businessman, was the first speaker.

“I was born and raised here. I left at the age of 18, and I came back 12 years ago. I’m speaking on behalf of this tax, and I believe it’s necessary for the community,” Spaulding said.

He stressed that the tax is needed to show prospective industries for Washington County that the community is serious about making strides forward.

“This tax and other taxes are seen by companies thinking about investing here, moving here, as our investment in our own community. They frequently conclude that it’s not sound practice to invest in a community where those living there are simply doing the minimum to get by tax wise,” Spaulding said. “This is less than $1.50 per month of tax, and I feel if we vote against something as small as this, will we ever step up to vote for something larger, no matter the consequences?”

Tom Bystrek, a retired teacher who spent 27 years in the Washington County school system, spoke as a parent who had three daughters go through the system. Bystrek said he is not only in favor of the tax, which will generate 4 percent more revenue than the previous rate, he said he wishes it were more.

“I’m in favor of it, not at 4 percent, but I wish it was 8 percent,” Bystrek said. “I taught for 27 years, and I had three kids go through this school system. If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. I’m not saying our kids are ignorant, but in many cases, our kids are ill prepared. I’m not knocking the teachers, because we have excellent teachers, but we just don’t have the facilities. It’s not fair to send our students out unprepared. They can get so many opportunities for scholarships, but we’re not meeting the needs for them.”

Others in education agreed with the need for the tax, but some parents and other taxpayers were not so quick to support the tax.

“Once again, I’m not for it,” Patty McCullen told the board. “If anything has to be done, do the compensating rate. None of our incomes are going up, therefore I can’t see that we can support the schools any more than we already are. I’m on a fixed income. I’m retired, and it’s not going up. I can’t support the school tax at this time.”

Another parent, Robert Nesbitt, also addressed his family’s financial challenges.

“I’m a person on a fixed income, and it’s hard to keep my family going now,” he said. “I’ve got a piece of crap car that’s about to break down, and I can’t fix that. How can I pay more taxes? I may not get a cost of living raise, but the cost of living is going on up.”

When all public comments were heard, interim superintendent Sonny Fentress recommended that the board take the proposed tax increase. Board member Pat Clements made the motion the increase be accepted, and as he did, he addressed Robert Nesbitt, who had previously spoken out against the tax due to financial challenges for his family.

Clements told Nesbitt that while he understood the challenges his family was facing, he was thinking of their daughter, who was seated beside her parents at the meeting. Clements said he was doing what he thought would benefit her and other students, and because of that, he had to vote in favor of the tax. Clements then made the motion to accept the tax increase. That motion was seconded by board member Mike McCain.

The motion was voted upon, and it passed unanimously with a 5-0 vote.