Rollback elections come to area school districts

By FAITH HUFFMAN, News-Telegram

Oct. 19, 2008 - Much-needed facilities repairs, replacement of aging buses and equipment, meeting state food service code, and being able to offer pay incentives to keep and recruit highly qualified teachers are among the many challenges school districts face today.

Trustees and administrators for Cumby, Como-Pickton and Miller Grove school districts join the group of 101 school districts across the state holding rollback tax elections to ratify a tax increase with the Nov. 4 general election to address some of those issues. Rollback tax elections are automatically called and require voter approval when a school adopts a tax rate that is higher than the rollback rate.

Cumby Superintendent Shaun Barnett and the board of trustees describe a rollback election as "the community's opportunity to decide if an increase of the local tax contributions for the school district's fiscal needs is appropriate," according to a brochure prepared by the district.

The passage of House Bill I by the 79th legislature lowered the maximum property tax rates from $1.50 to $1.04 per $100 taxable property value and set state funding based on revenue from the 2005-2006 school year. Costs for school districts, like that of businesses and individuals, has increased considerably since then. With state funding frozen for fourth straight year with no relief in sight, many schools are finding it very difficult to maintain the same level of operations as it did in the 2005-2006 school year without additional funding available through tax increases or a large influx of students. That's why so many school districts are asking their voters to consider approving increasing the districts' maintenance and operations tax, to help make up the difference.

Taxpayers 65 and older who receive the senior exemption will continue to have their tax rate frozen at the same rate it was the year they began receiving the exemption. That means tax bills for those age 65 and over won't be affected by the rollback rate.

Also, tax payers will still receive the same discounts on their taxes as they always have once the statements go out soon after the Nov. 4 election, Como-Pickton CISD Superintendent Sandra Billodeau notes.

Voters may cast ballots in the three rural districts' rollback tax elections early in person at Sulphur Springs Public Library, 611 North Davis St., from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Monday-Friday, Oct. 20-31; from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26; and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29 and Thursday, Oct. 30. Como-Pickton voters may also vote early in person in the basement voting in the basement at Wood County Courthouse in Quitman Oct. 20-31.

Como-Pickton CISD

Como-Pickton trustees and administrators are asking voters to cast a ballot regarding a roll back tax rate which, if approved, would help the school afford critical facility repairs and help the district be more competitive for highly qualified teachers by keeping up with pay increases.

C-P is asking voters to approve a $1.17 tax rate per $100 valuation, the maximum allowable rate as determined by the Legislature. The 13-cent increase in the maintenance and operation tax rate would generate $518,170 in additional funds, $156,000 local share and $361,970 state share. So essentially, for every local tax dollar collected, the state would match $2.32.

"The district is solvent and is currently operating on a balanced budge, but there is no leeway for unexpected expenses, for major facility repairs and replacement. There is a critical need to repair the main building roof. The estimate on this alone is over $600,000. The main building is over 40 years old and is in need of new electrical wiring. Other issues are older portable classrooms and structural issues with the beams," said Billodeau.

C-P's current financial outlook also leaves no room "for rising costs of hiring and retaining highly qualified personnel," nor are there sufficient funds to "add funds to the district fund reserve to satisfy Texas Education Agency recommended fund levels and meet facility needs as they arise," Billodeau added.

Fifty percent of the additional funding the first year of the rate would be utilized to replace, remodel or upgrade current facilities. Forty-five percent would be used to help build the district's reserve fund balance. C-P would put the remaining 5 percent toward personnel benefits.

In subsequent years, C-P would make improvements on a yearly basis with priority needs being addressed first. The additional funds generated from the raised rate also means the district won't have to ask for bond money, which has to be paid back with interest, Billodeau noted.

The projected cost to voters would be an additional $65 a year on $50,000 taxable value of property and $130 a year on $100,000 taxable value. So, basically, the tax bill on a property valued at $50,000 would raise from $520 a year at the $1.04 rate to $585 if the $1.17 rate is approved. The tax bill for a $25,000 property, $260 at the $1.04 rate, will increase to $292.50 a year at the $1.17 rate. A $100,000 property currently generates a tax bill of $1,040, that rate would increase to $1,170 at the $1.17 rate; and taxes on a $200,000 property increase from $2,080 to $2,340.

While the rate would be $1.17, the rate is still lower than the 2000-2001 rate of $1.195 and the 2002-2005 annual rate of $1.215. The rate was only $1.117 in 2006 and dipped to $1.03175.

A town hall meeting will be held Oct. 28 for public discussion on the issue.

Voters needing a ride to early voting can call 903-488-0905. The call will be returned and transporation provided.

Miller Grove ISD

Miller Grove board adopted a balanced budget with a maintenance and operations tax rate of $1.19, a rate that leaves no additional funding for any emergencies that may arise nor other needs such as replacing older buses, purchasing two major kitchen appliances so the cafeteria meets state code requirements and repairing and replacing aging air conditioning units. Thus, the school board is asking voters to approve a 13-cent tax increase for facilities repairs, to maintain existing operations and keep up with an possibly offer additional teacher pay incentives.

"We, the Board, and the administration have studied the finances closely and would not be asking for the rollback unless it was necessary for the kids and school. .... Passing the rollback would generate $52,493 in additional local money and an additional $87,423 in State money. This would being in an additional $139,916 for the school," Miller Grove Superintendent Steve Johnson and Board President Carolyn Burns wrote in a letter mailed to 500 district tax payers regarding the requested rollback for a $1.32 tax rate.

Johnson said the continued finance demands on school districts mandated by state and federal governments are difficult to match when "the school's income is frozen at the 2005-2006 level."

"When extra revenue is raised locally, the state reduces their contributions by the same amount," said Johnson, adding that 30 percent increases in electricity, 30 percent increases in fuel, 46 percent increases in propane and 28 percent increases in the cost of food and cafeteria supplies have also taken their toll on the district.

About 80 percent of the annual budge goes to teacher salaries which are only at the minimum state base allowable by law and staff benefits. The remaining 20 percent of MG revenue goes toward the cost of running the school.

To make ends meet since the rate was frozen 2 years ago, MG has has had to cut two aide positions, three full-time teacher positions, two half-time teacher positions, converted one full-time cafeteria worker to a half-time position and consolidated four bust routs to three.

"We currently have three aides: one librarian, who is required by law and is funded with Sate and Federal monies; one special education aide, who is funded by State and Federal monies; and one Pre-K aide, who is mostly funded by the tuition charged in Pre-K," the letter to taxpayers states.

The district is down to 21 full-time teachers who cover 14 grades, pre-k through 12th grade, and provide curriculum mandated by law.

School officials said that the additional funding would help address transportation, food service and maintenance needs. It'd help replace some buses, which average 14.67 years and 127,521 miles each, so that students can be transported reliably from one city to another for school competitions and meets, as well as on regular bus routes.

"We have been very lucky that the buses have held together this long, traveling some of the back roads they do, but it is past time to start replacing at least the three route buses over the next couple of years," the letter notes.

The district also is having to replace kitchen equipment to comply with changing state and federal laws, as food preparation and servings are set by the state.

"We have been able to obtain some surplus equipment from other schools but are still having to purchase a convection oven and still need a new cook stove. The current cook stove is over 12 years old and has been worked on many times. The repairman has informed us that he is not sure he can even get parts if the stove breaks down again," Johnson and Burns explain.

A couple of air conditioning units installed when the new elementary was built have gone out and had to be replaced. Since all unites were installed at the same time, repairs and replacement of other a/c units are anticipated as well. That's another cost the district won't easily be able to afford without the additional tax dollars, Johnson said.

Last year, the average taxable value of a residence was $54,138. That rate has increased to $59,282 this year. Last year's tax rate of $1.17 would have cost the homeowner $714.62. This year, the $1.32 rate would cost the tax payer only $67.90 more, for an overall $782.52 average residence tax bill.

To better explain these issues and answer other questions taxpayers may have, Miller Grove held one town hall meeting Oct. 13. A second meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30, in the new gym. Any questions related to the rollback tax election may also be directed to Johnson or Burns at the school at 903-459-3288.

Cumby ISD

Cumby ISD on Aug. 21 approved a $1.26584 per $100 taxable valuation tax rate, which should generate $280,000 in additional funding for salaries, utilities, to upgrade and update facilities and technology needs.

The district hopes to upgrade the bleachers at the football field, update the bus fleet by purchasing new units to replace the 15 year old buses. Cumby would also like to offer a music/band program, offer additional teacher pay, provide funding to meet additional fuel and utilities costs, and other facilities improvements.

"We're looking pretty hard at teacher salary increases. We currently offer nothing above the state base, we hope to increase it above the state base with the increase," CISD Superintendent Shaun Barnett said. "We want to be able to retain good teachers and recruit good teachers. We want to be able to compete with other schools for highly qualified teachers. If the rollback rate passes, we are looking at doing a benefit package to make the schedule more competitive."

Cumby's board of trustees and administrators drafted a brochure to help inform the public about the tax election. It notes that the maximum property tax rate was lowered by $1.50 to $1.04 by House Bill I. Increased costs since the 2005-2006 school years make it virtually impossible for the district to continue operating at the same level without increasing the maintenance and operations tax to the maximum $1.17. The good news is the debt service tax rate would decrease from $0.14 to $0.09584 this year, which would put new tax rate at $1.26584 overall. That'd generate an additional $280,000 the district could use for the repairs and improvements it's eyeing, $90,000 from local revenues and $190,000 from additional state funds.

"In other words, for every penny that taxes are raised, $31.95 additional revenue is generated for Cumby ISD. Of that $31.95, $8.11 comes from local taxes and $23.84 comes form additional state revenue," the brochure notes.

So what does that mean for CISD tax payers? Well, the average taxable value of a home is $57,000. That property would generate a tax bill of $721.52, an increase of $48.92 over last year's tax bill. The tax bill for a property with $35,000 taxable value would see the bill go up by $30.04 annually, which averages to an increase of $2.50 monthly or $0.08 daily.

"We hope voters of Cumby ISD will take the opportunity to help us build a first class school for our first class students," Barnett said.

A town hall meeting is salted for Tuesday, Oct. 28, at 7:30 p.m. in the elementary cafeteria. All are welcome to attend for additional information about the rollback tax election and have questions they may have regarding the election answered. Questions may also be referred to Barnett at 903-994-2775 or e-mailed to him at shaun.barnett@cumbyisd.net.

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