Group takes first step to put Lexington’s new school safety tax to public vote

Dozens of people attended a special meeting of the Board of Education to vote on a tax increase to pay for school safety upgrades at the Fayette County Public Schools Central Office in 2018 in Lexington.
Dozens of people attended a special meeting of the Board of Education to vote on a tax increase to pay for school safety upgrades at the Fayette County Public Schools Central Office in 2018 in Lexington.

A group of Lexington residents on Tuesday took the first formal step toward a recall of the school safety property tax increase approved recently by the Fayette County School Board.

The Fayette County Clerk’s office received an application to form a five-person committee that will attempt to get 13,632 signatures on a petition for a recall by Sept. 1, officials said.

Attorney Dan M. Rose is leading the group, which also includes Ronald Vissing, Raymond Davis, Tom Lipinski, and Adrienne Grizzell, according to the application. The five signed an application saying they were all registered voters who would be responsible for gathering the signatures.

“I feel it is unfair for four members of the education board to raise my property taxes by four percent. It’s almost like taxation without representation. All I want to do is to have a public vote to see if the rest of my community thinks that raising the taxes is justified,” said Lipinkski, a retired engineer.

Last Thursday marked the beginning of a 45-day window for people to collect enough signatures to put a recall of the property tax increase on the ballot for a special election. Last week, school board members unanimously added a 5‐cent property tax for every $100 of property value.

It is intended to pay for Superintendent Manny Caulk’s wide-ranging $13.5 million plan to improve school safety in the district, adding everything from more secure entrances, to walk-through metal detectors at middle and high schools, to more district police officers and mental health professionals. The property tax increase will cost the average homeowner with a $175,000 property about $7.30 per month, or $88 a year.

Fayette County schools faced numerous threats to school safety following fatal school shootings in Western Kentucky and Florida earlier this year, prompting Caulk to convene a safety advisory council that made the recommendations in his plan.

Caulk reacted to news of the recall application on Tuesday by saying that the safety plan “was developed with input from hundreds of community members and draws on the best thinking from across the state and nation.”

Some people at last week’s hearing said they couldn’t argue with the need for safety improvements to schools, but they didn’t want the tax increase. Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins Jr. has said a committee had 45 days from last Thursday to collect 13,632 signatures — 10 percent of the number of people in Fayette County who voted in the last presidential election — that they need for a valid petition.

After a petition is submitted, the county clerk has 30 days to determine whether the petition contains enough signatures of qualified voters to place the issue before voters.

Blevins has said that vote could come in November, but not in time for the General Election.

“I think that anything significant as an increase in property taxes should be voted upon by the taxpayers who have to pay those taxes,” said Davis, a career coach.

Vissing, a businesss owner, told the Herald-Leader that he is in favor of the property tax increase but “I am opposed to the process that was undertaken of four board members implementing a tax increase on residents.”

School district officials have said that the board followed state rules. Board members can not put the issue on the ballot. They can only approve it or vote against it.

Rose said the group is not opposed to school safety improvements.

“We think school safety should be the highest priority,” Rose said. “We believe the safety plan should be implemented immediately with existing resources or if necessary they need to cut existing spending or defer spending on other capital projects, dip into whatever rainy day fund they have.”

Caulk responded Tuesday that the school board “looked for other sources of funding. The school board cannot levy a sales tax. They cannot increase the occupational license tax or utility taxes. One-time grants from the federal government cannot fund a long-term solution.”

“We have cut everywhere we can and prioritized spending on instruction,” Caulk said. “Our children deserve the best education we can provide in the safest environment possible.”

Rose said the committee members thought last week’s school board vote was rushed. The plan was announced earlier this month. He said he was discouraged to hear that Caulk said if the property tax increase was not approved, that the plan’s improvements would not be made. He said the position appeared to be “we’re going to hold the safety plan hostage to the tax increase.”

“We realize it’s a very uphill battle given that we’ve roughly got 30 some odd days to pull what are essentially 14,000 signatures together on these petitions,” Rose said.

The committee has a website that has a link to the petition form where people can print it, sign it and gather additional signatures and mail them into a post office box, Rose said. The five will also launch a social media campaign. He said he didn’t anticipate having to conduct an extensive door-to-door campaign.