Education

The Kentucky Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday morning in a case against a 9.5% property tax increase levied by the Jefferson County Board of Education in 2020.

Opponents of the tax hike are appealing a lower court decision which ruled their referendum petition invalid, after members of the petition committee admitted to altering signers’ information to help the document pass muster with the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office.

On Thursday, an attorney for the petition committee focused on a claim dismissed by Circuit Court Judge Brian Edwards— their argument that the tax is illegal because the Jefferson County Board of Education passed it before the county clerk had certified property assessments.

“In Kentucky we have over 125 years of law saying that property must be assessed before taxed,” the petition committee’s attorney Patrick Graney told the Court.

Graney argued the board should have waited until the end of August to pass the tax, instead of in May. That would have required the district to hold a special election on the referendum after the November 2020 general election. Or, Graney argued, the board could have passed the tax in August 2020 and waited until 2022 to see the results of any referendum and begin collecting it.

The lawyer for the Jefferson County Board of Education, however, said the statute Graney cited applied to general ad valorem taxes, and not to school board taxes, which she said are governed by other statutes.

“The old version of [the statute] is different from the school tax provisions … which do not require an assessment before levy,” school board attorney Virginia Snell told the Court.

Justices have questions about altered petition

Several justices of the seven-member Court had questions about the validity of the tax-recall petition.

The petition was originally certified as having enough signatures by the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office. Signatures were collected electronically through a website. But the petition was later thrown out after a data specialist hired by the Jefferson County Teachers Association found the clerk’s office certified thousands of erroneous, duplicate or altered signatures.

The Jefferson County Clerk’s office is an appellant in the case, siding with the petition committee. Attorney Larry Zielke argued the clerk’s office did what was legally required to verify the signatures.

“An address may be off by a typographical error: instead of on the computer hitting zero, you hit a one. Well, is that enough … to disregard that petition number? We say no,” Zielke said. He also argued that statute is “silent” on who can add information to a petition other than the name.

Petition committee organizer and Louisville Tea Party President Theresa Camoriano admitted to altering birth dates and addresses of signers to match records in a Republican party database that Jefferson County Republican Rep. Jason Nemes provided her.

Security questions persist

Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth Hughes was skeptical of the clerk’s office’s confidence that the signatures collected were legally entered, since there were no security measures to prevent individuals or bots from submitting fraudulent signatures.

“If I know Chief Justice Minton’s name and his address and date of birth—which I do—and I wanted to go on there and enter it, what would prevent me from doing that?” Hughes asked Zielke.

Graney, the petition committee’s attorney, said he “conceded” the security measures were not robust, but pointed to testimony from committee members who said they were worried that security measures like CAPTCHA would have made it hard for elderly people to access the petition.

Meanwhile, Jefferson County Teachers Association attorney David Tachau argued actions by petition committee member Theresa Camariano showed the committee was more interested in getting the petition certified than it was in protecting against fraud.

He noted that Camoriano herself admitted to asking people to re-sign the document to make sure they had their information correctly entered and assured supporters she would remove duplicate signatures. But she left in more than 800 repeats.

She also refused to provide the clerk’s office with an electronic record so that they could catch duplicates. Instead, she provided paper copies only. 

“She testified she deliberately did not eliminate the duplicate signatures. She deliberately gave it to the clerk’s office in a format that made it difficult to identify the duplicate signatures,” Tachau said.

“That would have allowed your client to determine all of the multiple entered entries? If you’d had an electronic version?” Hughes asked Zielke, attorney for the clerk’s office.

“Would have been nice, but could have caused a problem,” Zielke said, arguing that having two different versions, a paper and an electronic tabulation, could have put the petition at greater risk of a challenge from the school board.

The Court did not give an indication on when the justices will issue a ruling.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.