The Fayette County Board of Education has a present for Lexington's taxpayers: For the first time in many years, the board isn't raising school taxes.
The Fayette schools' new 2010-11 working budget, which the board recently adopted, leaves the basic school tax rate on real estate at 62.9 cents per $100 evaluation — the same as last year — while the personal property tax rate stays unchanged at 5.3 cents.
Kentucky law allows public school districts to boost their tax rates enough each year to raise revenues by 4 percent without risking a roll-back referendum. Like most other school districts, Fayette County customarily takes the essentially automatic 4 percent increase each year to help cover the rising costs of operating the school system.
School officials said they aren't even sure how many years it has been since the district elected not to boost rates. Officials at the Fayette County clerk's office said Wednesday it might even date back to the late 1970s.
Fayette Superintendent Stu Silberman said the district decided to go without a tax increase this year as a way to provide some relief for Lexington residents who are struggling with the national economic downturn. Although economists recently concluded the U.S. recession actually ended in June 2009, many Americans are still feeling the pinch.
"With so many of our people under pressure because of the economy, I just didn't feel comfortable making a recommendation to the board for an increase," Silberman said. "So, we decided we were just going to suck it up and make things work without one."
Silberman said officials had to move carefully because the schools heavily depend on local tax revenues.
Mary Wright, the county schools' chief operating officer, credited "conservative budgeting" with making it possible to maintain educational services and staffing levels without increasing the tax rate. She said the district carefully reviewed financial trends and expectations for normal tax revenue growth this year and concluded that the schools could remain on "solid financial footing" without seeking a tax boost.
The roughly $16 million in federal stimulus money that the school system received last year also helped, she said.
Silberman said enrollment growth over the past two years also helped, since it entitled the school district to more state money.
"For this year, we feel very comfortable with what we've done," he said. "I wish we could do it every year."