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School board raises taxes again

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Drury, McDowell, Brown OK having property owners pony up additional $325,000

By Shelley Spillman

Property owners will see an increase in the amount of school taxes they pay for a second consecutive year following a decision Wednesday by the Anderson County Board of Education to take the maximum revenue increase allowed by law without voters having a chance to reverse the decision.

The board voted 3-2 for a 4 percent property tax levy increase during a special called meeting, claiming the additional funds are needed to cover state-mandated pay increases for district employees.

The increase will drive the district’s tax rate from $5.70 per $1,000 in assessed value to $5.85, a 2.6 percent increase. That means the owner of a property assessed at $100,000 will pay $585 in school taxes when property tax bills are mailed this fall compared to $570 the previous year.

The increase will result in the district receiving $8,724,059 in local tax revenue; an increase of $325,085 from last year, when the board voted for a 3 percent revenue increase that resulted in an additional $235,000 in revenue. Combined, the district has increased the amount of revenue it takes from Anderson County property owners nearly $575,000 in the past two years.

Had the board voted to leave the current rate static, the district would have received $104,000 more than it did a year ago.

Had it approved the so-called compensating rate, the rate property owners pay would have dropped to $5.63 per $1,000 assessed value, cutting school taxes on a property assessed at $100,000 from $570 to $563 while providing the district the approximately same amount of money it received during the previous year.

The board had the option to take up to a 4 percent revenue increase without being subjected to a voter recall; taking the compensating rate; leaving the rate flat; or reducing the rate from the previous year.

Board members Roger McDowell, Donna Drury and Scott Brown voted for the increase. Board members James Sargent and Lee Hahn voted no.

McDowell said during the meeting he would agree to the 4 percent revenue increase only if the board found a way to decrease administrative staff costs by 2 percent.

It remains unclear if that action will be taken. When asked what decreasing administrative staff costs would entail, Nick Clark, the district’s finance officer, said, “I am still unclear on what Mr. McDowell is referencing.”

Clark said the increase is needed to fund state-mandated pay increases of 1 percent this year and 2 percent next year for all staff. He clarified Friday that the increase is for “all district employees,” which would include Superintendent Sheila Mitchell, who earlier this summer received a 12 percent salary increase as part of her new four-year contract, raising her annual pay to $118,225.

According to Clark, salaries make up approximately 83 percent of the school district’s general fund.

During the tax hearing, school employees lobbied the board to raise taxes.

“The price of doing business has increased,” said Derek Shouse, director of student services.

He said there are so many more opportunities for students now that they didn’t have before. Shouse said his daughter took advanced placement classes at the high school, and because of this exceptional teacher she passed the class, saving him $1,200 in college classes for his daughter. He said in order to keep these talented teachers they need to be able to compensate them sufficiently for their efforts.

“I ask the board to consider the 4 percent increase to maintain what we have in place, improve our infrastructures and move forward,” he said.

Chris Glass, Anderson County High School principal, said the 4 percent increase is necessary to keep staff.

“If we want to be a top 10 percent school (in the state), we have to have top 10 percent talent,” Glass said. “If we’re not competitive it will be hard to keep good teachers.”

Glass said last year alone the district lost four “great” teachers at the high school, three of which went to neighboring school districts that pay more. He said it has become a recruitment process for nearby school districts to poach Anderson County teachers.

“I want to see our school system be successful,” he said.

Anderson County resident Roy Tony said he wanted an explanation of what mandated the 4 percent revenue increase and how the money would be applied before he could agree that it was the direction the school board should go.

Brown explained that 85-95 percent of the levied funds would go directly to the state mandated 1 percent raise for all staff this year and a 2 percent increase for all staff next year.

Though McDowell said his philosophy is typically to be against any tax increase, he felt this time it was a necessity.

“My fear is if we don’t raise the taxes we won’t be able to cover next year’s 2 percent mandated staff raise,” said McDowell.

McDowell claimed during Wednesday’s meeting that the economy has been fairly stagnant and property values have not increased, but that apparently is not the case.

According to figures provided Friday by Property Value Administrator Brian Stivers, the county’s overall assessed value increased this year by $17 million to $1.289 billion, which explains how the district could have left the tax rate flat while still taking in more revenue.

Sargent said he could not support the increase because the taxpayers in his district did not want it, and it is his job to represent their interests.

Drury said that the decision was not an easy one. She didn’t want to burden taxpayers anymore than they already are, but she said she was also concerned for students’ future.

She said the public does not understand that school accounts aren’t fluid. Each school fund has specific purpose that cannot be used for anything else. For example, building funds cannot be moved over the general fund to help fund teacher salaries.

Drury expressed that the staff works hard to keep costs down, including spending hours on the phone to renegotiate contracts at lower rates.

“There is simply no more room for cuts,” said Drury. “I am torn, but I feel I have to put the students’ future as first and foremost.”