Failed Education Tax Vote Puts Spotlight on Kentucky School Funding

The failure of an education tax in Colorado has a school choice proponent arguing for local voters to have a larger role in deciding how to fund Kentucky public schools.

It’s part of a larger discussion that elected leaders and policy makers will face in next year’s General Assembly as taxpayers see annual property tax hikes even as the state has cut education funding.

Last week, voters in the Centennial State rejected an amendment worth to increase their income taxes to pay for public education by a 2-to-1 margin.

The outcome is being called a major defeat for teacher’s unions and others who backed the measure, in part because Colorado is a blue state that twice voted for President Obama.

Joe Burgan is a coordinator with the Kentucky Charter Schools Association. He says local taxpayers are fed up with consistent hikes in the face of lagging test scores and failing schools, and simply want to make sure their money is being spent wisely.

“In Jefferson County specifically when voters look and they see that we’re home to over 40 percent of the state’s failing schools, I don’t think they’re getting a return on their investment—an investment that at last look was nearly $12,000 per student,” he says. “If given the chance to be able to have these votes, I think you would probably see what happened in Colorado (happen) in Kentucky.”

Under state law, school district tax hikes above 4 percent are subject to a local recall vote that Burgan argues should be lowered given that districts regularly raise the tax just below that threshold.

As The Courier-Journal’s Mike Wynn reported in October, almost half of the districts in Kentucky voted to raise local property taxes just below that maximum amount.

The Jefferson County school system’s revenue is generated mainly through property taxes that were increased for the sixth consecutive time this year. School board members had proposed a 3.1 percent hike initially, but settled on a 1.6 percent increase as a compromise.

Those in favor of the tax hike put the blame on state and federal leaders for failing to adequately fund the needs of students.

“The majority of our funds from Jefferson County are collected at the local level. And what we’re seeing is a situation where state leaders are shifting that burden,” says JCPS board member Chris Brady. “So rather than them saying they can stand tall and not have taxes, what they do is they shift that burden down to the school board and those like ourselves have to take look at that and say, ‘OK, well.’”

Kentucky’s education funding has been lowered substantially since 2008 despite Gov. Steve Beshear’s insistence to the contrary.

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show when an increase in student population and adjustments for inflation are taken into account, the state has actually cut about 9.9 percent from public schools over the past five years.

Federal sequestration is also set to slash another $32 million from Kentucky education coffers.

The state’s board of education is asking for funding levels to be restored to their pre-recession levels in the 2014 legislative session, but state lawmakers have already warned there isn’t much of a budge surplus to go around.

Another problem with the current trend is that if funding public schools continues to be more reliant on local tax receipts it creates more and more inequity. Larger and more affluent parts of Kentucky such as Jefferson County have higher real estate values to fund their school systems compared to sparsely populated rural areas.

Brady says the best answer is overall tax reform that would bring needed revenue. But critics argue that school board members are just as culpable by failing to examine their districts’ spending and unnecessary costs.

“The funding is there in Jefferson County. It is what are we doing with those funds to educate the children,” says Burgan. “I believe we’re going to see an audit in January that is going to take a closer look at how those dollars are being expended.

“What are we spending on fuel costs to bus kids across town? What are we spending on six figure salaries in a central office where it could be going into a classroom to educate these kids. And that’s why taxpayers are fed up with their property taxes going up, up and up.”

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