Education inflation

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Three voices raised in dissent don’t constitute a tidal wave of public opposition, and they didn’t deter the Franklin County Board of Education from voting unanimously for the biggest property tax increase it’s allowed to take.

However, school board members should not underestimate the breadth of public discontent over taxes that continue rising faster than inflation. The tax rate approved by the county board on Monday will bring in 4 percent more revenue than last year’s rate. The only way to get more is to risk a recall referendum. The board considered that route four years ago but backed off on a 10.5 percent increase when referendum petitions started circulating.

Had the 2008 tax increase gone through, it would have added $50 a year to the tax bill paid by the owner of a $100,000 home. This year’s hike has a $25 impact. Most homeowners can probably scrape up that much more, although it’s iffy for state employees and others who aren’t even getting cost-of-living pay adjustments. By collecting $335,000 more from district taxpayers (based on 96 percent collection), the board can give its teachers a 1 percent pay raise.

Superintendent Chrissy Jones worries that stagnant pay here would encourage teachers to head for greener pastures in counties that pay better. They have that opportunity, but Stephen Pulliam told the board it should keep in mind that communities closer to Lexington are generally more affluent than Kentucky’s capital. Joyce Groves, a state employee, noted that young teachers start here at $32,000 a year and routinely receive “step” increases in addition to other pay adjustments. She and Mike Hartley called on the board to tighten its belt before demanding more from taxpayers who already find themselves in a financial bind.

Since 2008, school board members have feared that state and federal cutbacks resulting from the economic collapse will shift more of the funding burden to local districts. The Kentucky Education Reform Act made a commitment more than two decades ago to put poor counties on more equal footing with richer, urbanized districts, but communities blessed with vibrant economies still have an advantage.

Franklin County’s other school district, Frankfort Independent, faces an even bigger challenge because of its preponderance of government and non-profit property that pays no taxes. Its board also voted unanimously to take the maximum tax increase. A $100,000 homeowner in the city district will pay $39 more this year. While no public protest was mounted at the city hearing, no one should assume all taxpayers are content with a trend that makes Frankfort Independent rates among the highest in Kentucky. Some board members suggested state legislators should give the capital city a little extra help.

That’s not a bad idea, but both city and county school districts need to think outside the property tax box. City and county government levy occupational taxes; the City Commission decided to lower its property tax rate this year while increasing the occupational tax. School boards also should consider taxing earners rather than owners, many of whom live on fixed incomes.

Of course, no tax is apt to win a popularity contest. Taxpayers recognize the importance of education, but many do prefer that school systems find ways to foster excellence without throwing frugality to the wind. Even schools should be expected to face economic reality.

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