Despite thousands of residents making the effort to sign a petition opposing a huge property tax increase approved by the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Board of Education during pandemic-ridden May, the district’s going to the mat to keep voters from having a say.
The board overreached by approving a tax hike so steep that state law allows citizens to petition and get it placed on the November ballot.
If higher taxes are so badly needed, why are JCPS board members and the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) – the local teachers’ union – working so hard to prevent voter approval?
Can’t voters be trusted to support such an obvious need?
Could it be that JCPS knows such a hike is especially appalling to taxpayers suffering through a pandemic where many have lost their jobs and closed their businesses with some now in danger of losing the very homes board members want to tax at a higher rate – especially when the district already spends $16,044 per student, which Kentucky Department of Education reporting shows is much more than the state average of $13,887.
Adding spending insult to tax injury, JCPS is paying $575,000 to a Danville-based firm for a public relations campaign to boost pro-tax efforts in the largest school district in a state which the Money Geek ranks sixth in the nation for personal bankruptcy filings during COVID-19.
A favorite talking point of the supporting tax-hike trinity – school-district bureaucrats, board members and union bosses – is that additional dollars are desperately needed since JCPS has a greater burden due to costs of educating poor and struggling children.
Yet how does doubling down on this large tax increase offer hope of improving a district which spent $1.8 billion in 2019 to produce horrible 11% math proficiency rates for its Black middle school students?
Such a performance doesn’t suggest a bright future ahead for most of these kids.
How can JCPS justify a sizable chunk of its $80 million transportation fund to bus Black students away from neighborhood schools that could serve them better?
Consider West Louisville’s Portland Elementary School, where 43% of Black students demonstrated math proficiency on state tests, ranking it in the top 15% of all JCPS elementary schools.
Are Portland’s students likely to receive a better education if they get shipped elsewhere?
Busing fewer students across the city would allow the redirecting of some of those transportation dollars toward building new schools in the West End, which Superintendent Marty Pollio wants to fund with revenues generated by a tax increase.
Some progress was made in challenging these huge tax spikes sought by school districts when the General Assembly passed legislation in 2019 allowing voters to sign recall petitions online.
Before that, the process was impossible, requiring signatures be gathered in person and signers to know their precincts, an obscure fact to most Kentuckians.
An attempt to recall a large school-safety tax passed by the Fayette County Board of Education in 2018 exposed how the process was intentionally designed to doom all attempts to stop such tax hikes.
There’s no indication that supporters of higher taxes will go quietly even though they must now work harder.
They’re doubling down in Jefferson County where JCTA paid an out-of-state firm to review the petition’s signatures and the board authorized Pollio to engage in a full-fledged legal effort to silence taxpayers’ voices.
The Courier Journal claims 5,400 signatures were duplicates or had wrong information.
Assuming those were all signatures from different individuals with no overlap, that still leaves 33,487 who opposed a tax hike strongly enough to take the time to sign a petition.
Will protesters show up for this fight to prevent voter disenfranchisement like they have for other issues?
I wouldn’t go to the mat betting on it.
(Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.)