4/26/2012 7:31:00 AM Hamilton hears school rescue plan that would double taxes
Dave Kurtz, Herald Republican Executive Editor KPC Media Group
HAMILTON — To keep Hamilton Community Schools open, people could vote to double the portion of their property taxes that support the school district.
That’s the advice of an expert consultant who spoke at a public meeting Wednesday night in the school gymnasium. William Roberson, a retired superintendent, said raising taxes would be better than making drastic staff cuts or consolidating with a neighboring school district.
In the November election, Hamilton voters could agree to raise their school property tax rate from 44 cents to 88 cents per $100 of assessed value.
To start a referendum in motion, the school board could approve it in the board’s May 14 meeting.
The higher rate would raise an extra $1.5 million each year to operate Hamilton schools. The extra income would last for seven years — the maximum life of a referendum tax increase. It would cover a funding shortfall predicted by Roberson, who outlined Hamilton’s financial crisis at Wednesday’s meeting.
Compared to neighboring school districts, the higher rate would leave Hamilton taxpayers paying a tax rate nearly identical to DeKalb Eastern schools ($.88), lower than DeKalb Central ($1.07) and slightly higher than the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County ($.78). Nearby Garrett-Keyser Butler schools have a tax rate of $1.07.
Hamilton Superintendent Jon Willman said Hamilton’s school taxes are likely to go up either way — if Hamilton merges with a neighboring district or if voters agree to raise them locally.
“Do you want the money to stay in Hamilton, where you have the local control … or do you want to consolidate … and have no control over it?” he asked an audience of more than 100 citizens and staff members.
Willman recited a list of positive reasons for keeping Hamilton schools independent — their high academic achievement, small class sizes, sense of community, strong parental involvement, support for families, community pride, a new one-to-one computing program, dual-credit college courses, an increase in 2012 kindergarten enrollment and last year’s school renovation project.
Williman said 92 percent of Hamilton third-graders passed the new IREAD3 test, and he expects summer retesting to bring it to 100 percent. State education leaders were aiming for 80 percent, he added.
Hamilton students “really appreciate the fact that we have small class sizes — they feel closer to their teachers,” he said.
The superintendent also listed potential drawbacks of consolidating with a neighboring school district — property values could decline, businesses could be negatively affected, students could get lost in bigger schools, it would be more difficult for parents to be involved, costs for driving to school would increase and children could face longer bus rides. He said local jobs could be lost, because Hamilton schools are the second-largest employer in the community.
Roberson said Hamilton schools could try to stay solvent by cutting costs, but “to be honest with you, you wouldn’t have a school left. … You would have to cut a significant amount of people and programs.”
If a tax increase to 88 cents were approved, it still would be 7.5 cents less than Hamilton property owners paid in 2008, before state funding changes sharply reduced school property taxes, Roberson said.
Hamilton schools find themselves in jeopardy because their tax revenue in 2012 is $1.14 million less than in 2009, he said.
Roberson said the district’s income has been hurt by the recession, reductions in state funding, the end of federal stimulus money and an enrollment decline of 150.5 students in recent years. He said the district expects to continue slowly losing students, perhaps 100 over the next several years.
This year, Hamilton school spending is expected to exceed revenues by $567,000. The projected shortfall over the next seven years could be $10.9 million.
Hamilton schools do have a cash balance of more than $2.6 million — $895,000 in a general operating fund and $1.75 million in a “rainy day” fund.
“That shows some real solid leadership and some foresight,” Roberson said. However, he added, state rules will prevent growing the rainy day fund in future.
Willman said the school district’s cash cushion would disappear in about four years at the current rate of deficit spending.
If a referendum to raise school property taxes failed this fall, the school board could bring the idea to voters again in the future, Willman said in response to a question from the audience.
Board president Scott Lucas said people are welcome to return to an identical meeting May 2 at 6:30 p.m. He asked audience members to encourage others to attend.
“The best thing we can do for this school right now is to make sure that everyone in the community has the correct information,” Lucas said. He emphasized there is no truth to rumors that Hamilton schools are closing next year.