Education

Voters in the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) District have a question on the ballot this election season: whether to approve a 9.5% property tax increase to support JCPS. The Jefferson County Board of Education passed the increase in May, but it is subject to recall by referendum. The tax hike is now the target of a lawsuit, as is the petition to recall it. It’s complicated, and because of pending litigation, it’s not even clear yet whether votes on the issue will count. So here is what you need to know.

How much is JCPS asking for?

The district is asking for an additional 7 cents per $100 of assessed property value, increasing the JCPS tax rate from 73.6 cents per $100 to 80.6 cents per $100. That amounts to about a 9.5% increase on your annual tax bill. A homeowner with a $200,000 home would see their tax bill go up by $140 a year, or $11.67 a month.

Why is this on the ballot?

State law allows local school boards to unilaterally raise taxes up to 4% each year. Anything more than 4% is subject to a recall vote. The increase the board passed in May amounts to 9.5%, and opponents gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to recall it. The Jefferson County Clerk’s Office certified that petition, requiring the question to be put to voters in the November election.

If a tax increase fails to gain voter approval, the board is still allowed to take the first 4%. That means taxes would still rise by about 1.9 cents per $100 assessed value, even if the referendum fails. A homeowner of a $200,000 home would still see their annual tax bill rise by $38.

What do supporters say?

JCPS officials and supporters of the increase say it’s needed to improve student outcomes and racial equity amid rising poverty, declining state funding and flat-lining federal funding. They also point to several years in which the school board has declined to take the 4% increase — this happened in three of the last 10 years, according to JCPS. Declining to take the increase was counted as a failing of the board in the Kentucky Department of Education’s 2018 audit of the district.

JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio points to a large body of research showing that increased school funding improves student outcomes. He also notes that other districts with better test scores or newer buildings, such as Fayette County Schools, Oldham County Schools and Anchorage Independent School District, have higher tax rates than JCPS.

“Money matters. Funding matters for outcomes for kids. And if we want to change outcomes in our community, we need to fund our students, just like we do in surrounding counties. And if not even better than that,” he said during a Tuesday night community forum on the tax increase.

Unlike many other Kentucky districts, JCPS has never added a “nickel tax,” a roughly 5-cent tax that is earmarked for facilities. As a result, Pollio says the district’s facilities are in dire straits, with 32 buildings at the end of their life. If the district waits any longer to fund new buildings and renovations, he says entire buildings could be condemned in the near future.

Pollio says the increase is also critical to implementing changes to the student assignment plan. The district is proposing to spend millions of dollars on new school buildings and upgrades in west Louisville so that more West End students can attend school in their neighborhoods.

Of the $50 million the increase will generate, the school board has pledged to spend:

  • $15 million on facilities
  • $15 million on increasing student instructional time
  • $12 million on schools with the highest needs (and lowest test scores)
  • $12 million on racial equity, including training staff and recruiting more Black teachers and other teachers of color.

What do opponents say?

Opponents of the increase say JCPS is not a good steward of public dollars, and they point to the district’s low student test scores as evidence. Many believe with roughly $16,229 per student in state, local and federal funding, the district has enough money.

“They have not shown how they’re spending that money wisely. So I don’t think it’s a good idea to give them more money at this stage of the game,” Theresa Camoriano told WFPL News. Camoriano led the petition to put the tax increase on the ballot. She is also the president of the Louisville Tea Party.

Camoriano points to the recent decision by JCPS to pay a developer $52,000 an acre for land that was purchased for $15,000 an acre in 2015, according to the Courier Journal.

Some opponents of the increase say they cannot support raising taxes during a pandemic and economic crisis.

Then there are residents who are lukewarm about the tax increase, including some Black residents of west Louisville who say they support it but have concerns about whether it will be spent equitably.

“My concern is just around the specificity,” retired JCPS principal and activist Michelle Pennix said. “We know billions of dollars have been poured into education in JCPS over the last 40 years, 50 years, since integration, and our students, Black and poor, have nothing — nothing — at all to show for it.”

Pennix is among a number of Black leaders who say they will cautiously support the increase and will seek to hold the district accountable for spending the money equitably.

What do “yes” and “no” mean on this ballot?

The ballot language is as follows:

“Are you for or against the Jefferson County Board of Education better supporting the education of students in Jefferson County Public Schools, including improvements to school facilities, by levying a real estate and personal property tax of seven additional cents ($0.07) per one hundred dollars ($100) valuation?”

A “Yes” vote is a vote for the tax increase. A “No” vote is a vote against.

The question is on the backside of the ballot.

Will my vote count?

Both the tax increase and the petition against it are being challenged in court. Depending on how the judge rules, the votes may or may not count.

JCPS and the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) say the measure shouldn’t be on the ballot at all. They are challenging the validity of the petition opponents organized, citing thousands of duplicate signatures or signatures that had discrepancies with voters’ names or addresses. If the judge rules in favor of the district, the tax increase would not be subject to recall, and voters will have cast votes that will ultimately not count. A ruling in favor of petitioners and the county clerk’s office would mean the tax increase would remain subject to voter approval.

Meanwhile, opponents have filed their own lawsuit, saying the entire 9.5% increase is invalid. They say the school board broke state law by passing the increase months before the county clerk had certified property value assessments for the year. Attorneys for the school board say opponents are incorrectly interpreting state statute. A ruling in favor of tax hike opponents would mean votes for or against the increase will not count, and the entire increase would be invalidated. A ruling in favor of the school board would mean the judge would still have to consider whether the recall petition is valid. Jefferson Circuit Judge Brian Edwards is expected to rule this week on the motion to declare the entire increase invalid.

Where can I vote?

Election Day is Nov. 3. Early voting and absentee voting are already underway. You can find your polling location and hours here.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.