Woodford County

'It has divided the community immensely.' High passions, ugly words over a new school.

Hear arguments for, against Woodford tax increase

Woodford County voters will have their say June 26th on a tax increase to help finance a new high school. Hear arguments for and against it.
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Woodford County voters will have their say June 26th on a tax increase to help finance a new high school. Hear arguments for and against it.

In Woodford County, accusations have flown on social media, from "pawning children for votes" to deliberately spreading misinformation.

Prominent members of the community have taken opposing sides — including the county's current and former school superintendents — as have some members of the same family. Students have spoken up in letters to the editor in the local paper.

One parent felt so strongly she donated $1,000 to put up a billboard.

Driving this passion, and community conflict, is a special referendum set for Tuesday that will decide whether a 5.5 cent school facilities tax should be enacted to replace Woodford County's 54-year-old high school building with a new one.

"It has divided the community immensely," said parent Karen Venis. "It's really almost kind of sad."

Venis feels so strongly about the need for the new high school in Woodford County that she donated $1,000 to the "I support our schools" campaign for the billboard supporting a tax to pay for it.

On one side in this debate are people who vehemently want a new high school because they say the current one is outdated. On the other side are those who don't want to pay more taxes.

Yard signs dotted the roadways and sidewalks in Woodford County ahead of the special referendum Tuesday on a higher tax rate aimed at helping to finance a new high school. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

Last week, a Facebook group called "Vote against Tax Hike" alleged in a post that supporters of the new school “were pawning children for votes by putting them on the street going door to door" and "putting their pictures all over the internet for predators to view."

A supporter of the proposed tax posted on Facebook that opponents had spread false information and urged people to seek the truth at one of several Q & A sessions held in the community. One opponent responded that the school board was being wasteful with taxpayer money. A Facebook post by a supporter of the tax said the people with "against" signs in their yards weren't very nice people.

The current superintendent Scott Hawkins and one of his predecessors, Paul Stahler, stand on opposite sides of the debate.

In one case, so are some members of the same family. Allison Richardson, who is against the facilities tax, has a sister-in-law who supports it. Both have expressed their positions on social media.

"She's been my best friend since sixth grade," said Richardson "We married brothers. I don't agree with her viewpoint of it. She doesn't agree with mine. But we're family. It's probably pretty common in this situation.

"When it's over, I feel like our community will be fine and move on. I don't think this is something that 10 years down the road where everybody's not going to be speaking. I want my kids to be able to afford to live in Woodford County and whatever I need to do to help that out, I feel like that's my responsibility," Richardson said.

The pro-tax forces say a new high school is needed because education has changed significantly since 1964 when the current building opened. They say a new high school would bring new opportunities in academics, arts and athletics, with new science and engineering labs, collaborative spaces for students and teachers and an auditorium/theater.

In a recent letter to the Woodford Sun newspaper, Woodford County high school students wrote in support of the facilities tax, explaining that the room shared by the band and orchestra gets flooded and has destroyed expensive equipment.

"The marching band practices on a parking lot field that is not up to regulation. The cafeteria acts as a theatre, archery range and cheer area with inadequate space," the letter said.

Woodford County Public Schools officials, including Superintendent Hawkins, are promoting the effort for the facilities tax. The district website asks people to vote for "our kids" on June 26. In one photo, children are holding up signs saying, "I'm worth it."

In January, the Woodford school board voted to approve a tax levy of 71.9 cents per $100 on real property and personal property with the additional 5.5 cents to be restricted money used for new facility construction or major facility renovation. But a group that is opposed to the tax — including former superintendent Stahler — got enough signatures on a recall petition to send the issue to a vote.

Hawkins said in terms of the impact on Woodford property owners, if a home is valued at $150,000, the increase on the tax bill would be $82.50 or $6.88 per month. For a home valued at $200,000, the tax bill would go up by $110 a year or $9.17 per month. For every $100,000 in property value, the increase would be $55.00. A 5.5 cent facilities tax would generate an additional $1.5 million dollars each year, according to district officials.

Woodford County Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins is in favor of the tax increase for a new high school building. The old building dates to 1964 and was last renovated in 1996. "This is really about what experiences we want our students to have," said Hawkins, who has been superintendent for the past 10 years. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

Woodford County Schools would be eligible for state matching funds if there are any available in the state budget for districts that pass the nickel tax. It would allow the district to start work on a new high school immediately, Hawkins said.

Without the tax, a new high school won't be considered for another 12 years, Hawkins said. "Next year's kindergarten class, the class of 2031, would not see a new high school. To me that's a long time to wait to provide our students with those kinds of opportunities that we believe they deserve."

A Facebook page that opposes the tax increase called Woodford Tax Facts said the special referendum is not about whether or not to build a new high school, but about "a significant tax increase."

"We don't want to pay that tax," Stahler said in an interview. "We think it's a little excessive. We think it could be done a different way. Wait a few years and spend your money wisely and look down the road a little bit at your bonding potential, then it can be done. It's a significant increase in the amount of tax that we are going to be paying. It's like 8 percent in one year. What's it going to be like ten years from now? All property assessments are going to go up so eventually you are going to be paying more. "

Former Woodford County Schools Superintendent Paul Stahler is opposed to the tax increase because he believes there is a better way to update the high school without increasing taxes or accumulating debt. "The school is the people that are in it, not the building," Stahler said. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

Stahler is concerned about the school district taking on debt.

"I think the current high school structurally is fine. Does it need work? Yes. But I just feel like there's another way to do it. Let's get the community together and figure out how we can pay some of the debt down," he said.

Karen Venis said in a Facebook post that she and her husband, David, "can list 1,000 reasons why we chose to support this effort by purchasing the billboard, but our top 3 are our children, Dylan, Tyler and Henry because they are worth it. "

"Our initial intent was to remain anonymous," Venis said of the billboard in the post, but "the motives of the billboard continue to be a topic of discussion and debate on social media."

"I feel really strongly that it's the right thing to do for our community. My husband and I graduated from there. We needed a new school 20 years ago," Venis told the Herald-Leader. "We need technology. We need security. We need space to collaborate. We need improved facilities for performing arts. The list goes on and on."

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David and Karen Venis and two of their children, Tyler, 9, and Dylan, 12, live in Woodford County. The Venis' spent $1,000 on a billboard in support of the tax increase. David and Karen both graduated from Woodford and are concerned about their three children going to high school in the same building that they did. "Safety is very important to us," Karen Venis said. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

Hawkins said he toured Lexington's Frederick Douglass High School that opened last fall and saw, for example, that room partitions could be removed so that two classes could collaborate with each other.

"From a safety standpoint, your newer buildings are going to have some of the most up-to-date safety features," Hawkins said. " Those are all things that are opportunities that our kids right now don't have. It's a building that has served us well. But we believe this is the right time to do this for our students."

"We don't have any kind of performing arts space like an auditorium. If they do any kind of drama performance, its in the cafeteria," he said.

Prominent people in Woodford County are on opposite sides of the issue. Former U.S. Representative and former Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler, a Woodford County High School graduate, expressed support for the facilities tax in a statement posted on Facebook. "I graduated from Woodford County 41 years ago. We needed a new high school then. I commend everybody involved in this for standing up and being courageous about this, because this has been a long time coming," said Chandler.

Woodford County Judge Executive John Coyle has said he is against the tax.

The school district purchased 61 acres in 2012 next to the current middle school for the new high school, Hawkins said.

The Kentucky Department of Education has approved a high school building for 1,400 students — about 10 percent above the current enrollment. An architect provided an estimated cost of $46 to $47 million for the project, the district website said. If a new high school is built, recommendations for the current high school building include using it as central office, an alternative school, adult education programs and possibly an advance manufacturing program.

The facilities tax is needed, the district website said, because the district's bonding capacity — the amount the school district is eligible to bond, or borrow, to complete new construction or renovation projects — is $13.8 million dollars, less than is needed.

"We just want the public to vote on" the facilities tax, said Stahler, the former superintendent who is against the tax. " If the public decides that's what they want, we're good with that. We move on."

Richardson, who is against the tax, said she thinks that the community debate will be a good thing in the long run.

"I definitely feel like its going to be a very close decision. I feel like it's great that our community has gotten involved and they are speaking out on both sides," she said. " People are passionate about it."