Education

This Kentucky school district has to refund as much as $1 million to taxpayers

Johnson Central High School opened in 1968, Superintendent Thom Cochran said. It has a capacity of 716 but has nearly 1,100 students.
Johnson Central High School opened in 1968, Superintendent Thom Cochran said. It has a capacity of 716 but has nearly 1,100 students. Johnson County Schools

Johnson County’s high school was built in 1968, and the district hasn’t built a new school in nearly 20 years.

District officials had hoped to use a nickel tax increase to address some of its building needs. Instead, this week, Johnson County Schools began refunding to taxpayers the proceeds from three years’ worth of that nickel tax — an amount that could approach $1 million.

Taxpayers could begin requesting the refunds this week, Superintendent Thom Cochran said. The refunds are coming because in May, taxpayers voted against the nickel tax increase after a lengthy court case.

The background: In the 1990s, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law to establish how school districts can finance their schools. All districts had to add a nickel to their tax rates. Districts that need to renovate or build new schools have the option of adopting additional nickel taxes, subject to voter referendums. The revenues must not be used for any reason other than facilities. The state determines an amount that it provides to the school district to match or equalize the added nickel to taxpayers.

Cochran said Johnson County schools, with an annual operating budget of $28 million, could have used the money to renovate and replace aging buildings, including the high school built in 1968. The May vote and the resulting refunds will probably mean that the district won’t be able to build new schools or fully renovate buildings any time soon, except some energy-saving measures, Cochran said.

The high school has a capacity of 716 but has nearly 1,100 students, Cochran said.

School officials have said that the building doesn’t meet student needs.

In Johnson County, taxpayers can receive refunds for 2014, 2015 and 2016 based on property assessment values. The school board had approved the nickel tax increase beginning in 2014, but the matter has been tied up in litigation until it went to a vote in May, Cochran said.

After applications are received, refunds will be processed on the 15th and 30th of each month beginning Sept. 15. Cochran said all applications must be submitted by May 2019.

WYMT said in May that 1,278 people in Johnson County voted for the nickel tax, and 1,551 people voted against it. Taxpayers opposed to the tax told WYMT that many people couldn’t afford it.

Several Kentucky school districts in recent years have passed the nickel tax and haven’t been challenged. However, Hancock County residents voted against a proposed nickel tax in 2016, said Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. Shelton said that when districts don’t approve the tax increase, it can cause inequities in districts across the state.

Anna Shepherd doesn’t want Johnson County to have inequities. Shepherd told the Herald-Leader that she and her husband, Carlos Smith, have decided to donate their refund of $208.82 back to the school district.

“We definitely understand, my husband and I, that our children are our future here in Eastern Kentucky, and we understand it takes a village and a community to support each other and work together,” she said. “Regardless of the amount, we want to make sure that our kids remain competitive. We want to donate that back to the school district.”

Cochran, the superintendent, said some other taxpayers have told him they want to do the same.

Shepherd said she doesn’t have a child attending Johnson County Schools.

“We think we have some of the best kids in the state, and we have hardworking parents that have great values and that want the best for their kids and their grandchildren,” she said. “We understand that schools and school districts are doing important work. They need our continued support to be able to provide a variety of opportunities for each kid in our county. We want our kids to exit our schools in Eastern Kentucky with the best possible preparation.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

To get a refund

Applications for the nickel recall refund can be picked up at the Johnson County Board of Education Central Office, 253 North Mayo Trail, Paintsville. Applications also can be printed from the school district’swebsite at the following link: Johnson.kyschools.us/documents/nickeltaxrefundrequest.pdf

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