This year’s attacks on public education in the political arena and a number of tragic acts of violence on school campuses across the nation have impacted Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk. Wednesday, in his annual speech on the condition of Lexington public schools, Caulk said he didn’t remember a year like it.
“Our students deserve both a world class education and safe schools,” Caulk said.
Yet the school district, which Caulk said made dozens of strides in 2017-18, is facing another challenge as a tax increase designed to make Lexington public schools safer faces opposition from a group of Lexington residents. The Committee for Recall Vote are holding public meetings Saturday to gather signatures to force a recall of last month’s unanimous school board vote on a school safety property tax increase.
In his annual “State of the Schools” speech before more than 500 citizens Wednesday morning, Caulk acknowledged the effort saying that it “remains to be seen” whether the recommended improvements will be carried out.
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There is “a cost for ignoring the call to action put forth by our District Safety Advisory Council, and I believe that is a price too high for our community to pay.”
The property tax increase would bring $13.5 million in improvements recommended by the district safety advisory council in the aftermath of fatal school shootings in Kentucky and Florida and numerous threats to Fayette schools.
The plan includes walk-through metal detectors in schools, more secure buildings and more mental health professionals. The tax increase calls for 5-cent property tax for every $100 of property value.
Caulk explained that the district’s three main priorities during the 2018 legislative session were to fully fund public education, increase investments in school safety and security, and expand mental health services. That didn’t happen, he said. The 2018 General Assembly saw mass protests from teachers who feared public education was being attacked through changes to their pensions and a lack of funding for education. Ultimately, Fayette County lost $5.3 million in state funding.
Caulk said Wednesday that district officials made that up by cutting positions in the district office in order to protect classrooms.
He noted accomplishments in the past year that include transforming high schools to prepare more students for careers, identifying more students for gifted and talented programs, and increasing services for students with special needs and students whose home language is not English.
He said the district has two moral imperatives — to accelerate the learning of students who have not reached proficiency and to push already proficient students to become globally competitive.
But Caulk said the main priority “is always going to be safety.”
He cited incidents in which a student who had the means to do so threatened to shoot up a high school and other incidents in the 2017-18 school year with guns at two other high schools.
“In one case, more than 80 percent of the students stayed home from school the day after a student was charged with bringing a gun on campus. Just a week later, a student at a different school accidentally shot himself in the hand during class with a gun he had in his pocket,” he said.
“What’s the price that we are willing to pay?” Caulk told reporters after his address.
“Do we see our children as our highest priority, making sure they are safe?”, he said.
Lexington residents will get an opportunity to decide on a property tax increase. From 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, the group trying to get signatures on a petition to force a recall vote on the tax increase is holding public meetings at several library locations including the Northside Branch Library, 1733 Russell Cave Road, Village Branch Library 2185 Versailles Road, Central Branch Library Downtown, 140 East Main St (Rooms C & D) and Eastside Branch Library, 3000 Blake James Dr off Man’o’War.
The group’s website, https://fayettetaxvote.com/ , states its members want the proposed safety plan to be implemented immediately with existing resources or, if necessary, with cuts to existing spending in the school district.
“We’ve got people going door to door throughout the city. A lot of people have come forward since the effort was announced,” said attorney Dan Rose, who is leading the group.
The group needs nearly 14,000 signatures to force a recall vote. Rose said he thought that at least 1,000 signatures had been collected by Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Bob Quick, president and CEO of Commerce Lexington Inc., confirmed that Lexington’s business community will oppose efforts for a recall.
“We’re just all interacting with each other, trying to figure out where things are at and how to move forward and get the information out so taxpayers have an opportunity to see the value of what they are going to get for the safety plan,” said Quick who attended Wednesday’s presentation.