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School board passes tax increase

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By Nick Schrager

A proposed tax increase was approved Wednesday night by the Washington County School Board. The new rate was approved by a vote of 4-1.

With the new tax rate, property owners will pay 54.8 cents per $100 of assessed property value, which is up from last year’s rate of 52.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. The increase will mean an additional $19 per year on $100,000 worth of property.

The options before the board were to pass the proposed rate, which will generate another $169,000 in revenue for the school district in the coming year, or to accept the rate known as the compensating rate. The compensating rate would be 52.7 cents per $100 of assessed value on real estate and 52.9 cents per $100 of assessed value on personal property. With the compensating rate, there would be a much smaller increase in revenue of $60,135.81.

The tax was passed, but not before board members heard 13 of the nearly 40 people in attendance at the meeting speak out and voice their opinions.

Len Spalding, a local businessman who said he left Washington County, but returned with an interest in economic development, told the board he was in favor of the tax because of the things it could do for industry in the county.

“I am extremely in favor of this tax. Not because I like taxes, but because I  feel it’s something absolutely essential to the growth of this community. No company will bring its people to your community here and open up a business and create jobs and continue to make investments in this community if they don’t see some tangible signs of the people in this community investing in the community,” Spalding said.

He went on to tell the board he has seen this community be a finalist to bring a business to town, only to have that slip away late in the process due to the needs of the local schools.

“What we really need is a new school, and we’re not going to get through to establishing companies in our community if we can’t show we’re interested in our school system,” he added.

Others spoke in favor of the tax and its benefits for the school district, including Tom Bystrek, a parent who sent three children through the local school system, and also a retired teacher who taught for 27 years in the Washington County school system.

“As a former teacher, and a parent who had three kids go through this school system, I will no longer benefit from it, but I’m here because of community interest, and that’s why I support the tax,” said Bystrek, who now works at St. Catharine College. “I’ve seen it, as Len said. Industries don’t locate here because of our schools, and the faculty and staff at St. Catharine College choose not to locate here. Perception is so important. I’d like to see it get to the point that we have a lot of businesses and industry here, and I’d like to see my kids have an option to come back here. With so many of our great students, the last time you see them is when they walk across the stage at graduation. We need those kids to come back here, and that’s why we need the tax increase.”

Some teachers and school administrators also spoke in favor of the increase, citing the need for facilities, supplies, and even assistants in the classroom.

While some were in favor, others had non-supportive views of the tax increase, and they pointed to the economy and tough times on local families as the reason they did not want to see it pass.

Sandy Carrico, a parent of a student in the school system, said rising costs are making it hard for her to get by.

“People are struggling right now just to pay mortgages and get back and forth to work. It seems every time we turn around, there’s a new tax on something. The cost of everything is going up,” she said. “I agree you need a new school, but you need to be like everyone else and tighten your belts. People can’t afford it.”

Carrico told the board members that she realizes that $19 is not a lot of money on a $100,000 property, but added that all expenses are rising and making it tougher on her and her family.

“We’re struggling to hang on to the property we have. My husband spends over $600 a month on gas to go to work and pay those bills,” she said.

Thomas Peters spoke against the tax, saying he feels the school district needs to tighten its belt just as citizens have had to do.

“We’re taxed to death. You all know you have to pull your belts at home, and we have to tighten them up. It’s time you pull your belt together and quit, or slow it down. Some of you all have money, and that’s fine, but for people who don’t have it, it’s hard,” Peters said.

Morris Sweazy simply challenged the board to do the right thing with the taxpayers’ money. Sweazy suggested the board should look into travel expenses for sports teams and said school officials should try to have local teams play opponents who are closer in proximity to Washington County.

“I’m not knocking sports. I probably go to as many games as anybody. I like them, and I even had a heart attack up there at a game one night. I know it costs a lot of money to run buses a long distance. We used to play eight football games, and we played people close to us,” Sweazy said. “I’m sure nobody wants a tax, but if it passes, I want you to spend it as wisely as you can. I feel like you all are doing a good job, and I’m proud of all of our teachers.”

After all who wished to speak had been heard, a motion was made by board member Pat Clements to approve the tax.

“I move to approve it. I’m certainly sympathetic to everyone. It’s an increase, and certainly a burden, but as I look back over history, I feel like every generation made a sacrifice so the next generation could live a little better, and that’s my reason for doing so,” he said.

Mike McCain seconded the motion, saying he agreed with the comments made earlier by Bystrek.

“Every time Mom and Dad would move, Dad would pick out the school and the church. That was number one in the family, and it paid off. They had 13 kids and 11 college graduates, and it’s the same with my kids. Education is so important to Susan and me. Our fifth child is at UK, and our other four children have graduated. My kids had teachers who are in this building right here, and I am thankful for those teachers,” McCain said. “I do appreciate everybody’s comments tonight. We listened to them, but I would like to second that motion.”

Board members Nora Hatton and Buffy Mann also supported the increase. Hatton said she appreciated Sweazy’s remarks, and noted that she had written them down, reminding herself and the other board members to spend the money wisely, and she added, “We will.”

Mann said she supported the tax. She told the audience she now teaches in the Marion County school system, and said that county once had trouble attracting businesses because the school system was not what it needed to be at the time.

“Factories told the school system they would never bring a business to Marion County because the school system was so poor. But they have flipped that, and they have some beautiful buildings and some great teachers,” Mann said. “I would like to see that happen to our community. I do sympathize with the people who are against the tax, and I agree. My husband and I work, I am tightening up my belt, and I have had many conversations in the past week with people who said the school district wastes money. But since Mrs. Cochran (Superintendent of Washington County Schools Robin Cochran) has been with us, we have seen some tightening of the budget. We have done things I didn’t know were possible.”

The lone vote against the increase came from board chair Patsy Lester, who expressed her sympathy for people struggling to pay higher costs of living.

“There’s probably nobody in this room any more of a supporter of the kids and what is best for them than me. I’ve always said you can set a kid on a rock and he’s going to learn if you’ve got good teachers. I am a big supporter of not only those people who are going to be college bound, but also for those we know will stay with us in our district. They’re going to be the backbone of our county down the road,” Lester said. “I cannot support the tax raise. I have to support my constituents who are mostly retired people, mostly farmers, and I’m out there on the farm every day. I know what a hard time they have. I could support the compensating rate, which would generate $60,000, but that’s not an item on the agenda to be voted on. My vote is no for the tax rate.”

Following Lester’s vote, the final total stood at 4-1 in favor of the increase, and the new tax rate will stand at 54.8 cents per$100 of assessed property value.