Woodford County

Is a new 1,400-student high school big enough for Woodford County?

Woodford County Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins fielded questions Thursday about a proposed property tax that would pay for a new $47 million high school. The forum was held at the existing high school, which opened in 1964.
Woodford County Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins fielded questions Thursday about a proposed property tax that would pay for a new $47 million high school. The forum was held at the existing high school, which opened in 1964. gkocher1@herald-leader.com

Woodford County is looking to build a high school to replace the current building that opened in 1964.

But is a new school with a 1,400-student capacity big enough?

That’s what parent Nicole Florence asked Thursday night as Superintendent Scott Hawkins fielded questions about the possibility of a 6-cent property tax increase to help finance the school’s construction.

The current high school has about 1,280 students.

The Kentucky Department of Education limits the capacity a district can seek, Hawkins said.

“We asked … for a 1,500-student high school,” Hawkins said. The state said “that’s too large. They allow you to build a building that’s 10 percent over your current capacity. So if you look at our current capacity at 1,280, if you add 10 percent, that’s right at 1,400.”

In addition, the Woodford public schools have only 400 more students enrolled districtwide than they did in 1975, Hawkins said. If Woodford County begins to see some enrollment growth, the state will take that into consideration should the district seek a bigger high school.

The Woodford district has a total enrollment of a little fewer than 4,000 students.

No serious opposition was voiced by the 21 people at the forum to the facilities tax that would go toward construction of a $47 million high school and improvements to other schools. The new high school would be built on 61 acres, next to Woodford County Middle School, that the district bought in 2012.

The Woodford school district has a bonding capacity of $13.8 million. It’s at that level because the district has done $34 million in projects over the last 13 years. Trying to renovate the existing high school with upgrades would cost about 62 percent of a new high school, Hawkins said.

A 6-cent tax would increase the bonding capacity to $53 million, and state matching money would be added on top of that.

“If we really want to work with our students on 21st-century skills, we need some updated space,” Hawkins said. “We need some updated science labs and engineering labs.

“If we do nothing at all, the earliest we could begin to discuss a new high school is 2028,” Hawkins said.

That’s because the district is paying off debt on other projects, including the middle school, which opened in 2005, and projects at elementary schools.

If the board approved a tax, it’s possible the new high school could open for the 2020-21 school year, Hawkins said.

Mary Ann Gill, a Woodford Fiscal Court magistrate, said that taxes for the county fire protection district and agricultural extension service are increasing. Retirees on fixed incomes are the fastest-growing population in Woodford, she said, and renters are likely to see increased rents as the cost of tax hikes are passed on to them.

“What do you say to them?” Gill asked.

“I know that a tax is never popular,” Hawkins said. “But I think what we have to make a decision on is: What’s right for our students?”

In addition, schools are one of the biggest economic-development tools in any community, Hawkins said. “When people are looking to relocate to this community or when businesses are looking to relocate to this community, the school system is one of the driving forces.

“And when they look at the school system, they look at their performance and they look at their facilities. … If we can take that to another level, then I think that’s a real advantage for our overall community.”

Once a new high school is built, the existing high school would be renovated to become a central office, an alternative education center, and a career and technical education center to prepare students for jobs in local manufacturing plants.

The district’s central office is now in an old school building on Pisgah Pike behind Castle Post off U.S. 60.

Hawkins will speak about the proposed tax to Woodford Fiscal Court at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Two more public forums are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Woodford County High School library and 7 p.m. Sept. 21 at Northside Elementary School in Midway.

Once those forums are held, the school board will decide whether to pursue and approve the property tax. If the board votes for it, the public will have 45 days to submit a petition to the county clerk’s office seeking to recall the tax levy with a special election.