Newport School Tax May Be Taken to Voters for Repeal
This story has been updated with comments from Tom Ferrara, a former Newport city commissioner who is leading the petition drive to repeal the new school tax.
There is between $5 and 6 million worth of improvements needed to infrastructure within the Newport Independent School District, finance director Tete Turner said. Newport High School needs to replace its HVAC system - original to the building in 1977 and faulting "several times a month". "It's probably over a million dollars," Turner said.
The high school gym's roof is leaking and will eventually ruin the gym floor, he said, adding that the roof at the intermediate school isn't in much better shape. Newport Primary School could use a new entrance system with security cameras, and carpeting that is older than most of the district's staff needs to be replaced throughout the buildings.
Masonry, bleachers, the football stadium, you name it: Newport's school system is in need of many significant and costly upgrades, Turner said.
And with a price tag as high as Turner estimates, the district is turning to taxpayers. In January, the Newport Board of Education adopted what is known colloquially as "the nickel tax", which the Kentucky Department of Education defines as:
The actual tax rate that districts levy to produce the five cents equivalent tax is greater than five cents because the SEEK calculation takes into consideration that the tax is exclusively applied to real estate and personal property. However, it is not applied to motor vehicles and also adjusts in anticipation that districts will collect less than one hundred percent of the actual tax revenue owed. Regardless of the amount of tax collection, districts are required to transfer the exact amount produced by five cents per one hundred dollars of assessed value of property and motor vehicles to their building fund.
It is tax permitted by state statute and the proceeds must benefit capital projects. The money can't be used for teacher salaries or operational costs, for example. It is also subject to repeal by voters, and there is a movement afoot in Newport to make that happen.
"It is over and above the compensating rate so it is subject to a recall petition," Campbell County Clerk Jim Luersen told The River City News. His office has been researching the statute associated with the nickel tax and how a special recall election would take place. Ordinarily, such an issue would be placed on the ballot during the next general election season in Kentucky, which would be in November of 2018. In this case, Luersen said, there is another option: the Board of Education could call for a special election which would take place 30 to 45 days after the clerk's office certifies a petition calling for a repeal of the tax.
Such a petition would need to have signatures from registered voters in Newport Schools' precincts representing 10 percent of the total voters in the last U.S. Presidential election, which took place last November. Luersen said that the number is roughly 450 signatures or so. Turner said that he would recommend to the Board of Education to push for a special election, even though the district would have to pay for it.
Former Newport city commissioner Tom Ferrara, who served in the 1980s and lives in the Clifton neighborhood, is leading a group of about 10 people, he said, in gathering the necessary signatures.
"This doesn't spur strictly from the money part of it," said Ferrara, who owns and operates Dixie TV in Covington. "The fact is, the Newport school system in the 3-county area has the third-highest administrative expenses. We rank 167th out of 173 school districts (in Kentucky) and you've got 1,900 students and spending that kind of money and getting the results we're getting is sad."
Luersen was unsure of how much it would cost for a special election, but it would operate like any other Kentucky election, with polls open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., requiring poll workers throughout and at all 11 precincts.
Ferrara said that ten people are going door-to-door to gather the necessary signatures and so far, no one has turned them away, he said. "Most of them I have talked to are immediately signing it. I have not had a negative response yet," he said.
For the district, Turner said a repeal would be detrimental. The Board of Education has declined to take the allowable 4 percent increase on property tax for each of the past five years, something that would have allowed the schools to create a building fund, he said. Plus, with the nickel tax, which represents $58 per $100,000 of real estate value in Newport's case, the district would lose out on a contribution from the state.
"If we raise $433,000 off this additional tax, then the state will match that with approximately $168,000," Turner said.
Superintendent Kelly Middleton issued a note to families within the district.
"The Board of Education has not taken the 4 percent tax increase in the past five years; this equates to over $2.5 million dollars," MIddleton wrote. "Failure to pass this tax levy will result in the board administering higher taxes in the future which are not recallable.
"So I ask you - on behalf of the entire Newport school system - please do not sign the petition if you are asked. Losing this funding at this critical juncture, when our facilities are in dire need of attention and improvements, will only force us to remain static or even take a step back at a time of great momentum and progress in our district."
Ferrara was particularly critical of Middleton's salary of approximately $181,000, which makes him the 8th-highest-paid superintendent in Kentucky.
"My first response was, first of all, give me some results in the school system," Ferrara said, "and my second one is, why weren't these things maintained over the years for everything they need now. That is the big deal to me. We're paying a lot of money and getting very sad results."
In last year's state test scores, Newport Independent Schools ranked 167 out of 173 districts in Kentucky, and is rated as "needs improvement". Newport High School, however, earned a "proficient" rating.
If the tax stands, it will appear on tax bills later this year.
The district is gearing up to defend the school board's unanimous decision to levy the nickel tax. "In the next week or so, we'll take a look at that to see what the cost of that election is," Turner said. He added that the state has pushed a lot of additional costs on local districts while reducing its own contributions to local schools.
Ferrara disagrees, and expects the board to repeal the tax on its own.
"I think they'll either withdraw it or call for a special election," Ferrara said. "I can't see them calling for it, but they've been known to waste money on other things."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher