The Washington Court House City Schools (WCHCS) Board of Education passed a resolution this week to ask the district’s voters to approve an earned income tax levy this November.
According to WCHCS Superintendent Tom Bailey, the board of education met recently for a special meeting with Fayette County Auditor Aaron Coole to see what type of levy they could ask for from the community and how much it would cost the voters.
“We got that back from the county auditor last Thursday so we put the resolution for (Monday) and it was approved,” Bailey said. “The board of education is asking for a 1 percent earned income tax levy. This only impacts employees who live in the district, so only residents will pay the levy. If, for instance, Kroger has an employee who lives in the county, they will not pay this. This will only be a tax on the residents of the Washington Court House City Schools’ district boundaries who earn a wage.”
The decision to land on a levy based on wages earned came from a number of factors. The first — and probably the biggest reason — is the amount of property available for evaluation. According to Bailey, out of the 610 school districts, WCHCS is 564th in terms of assessed evaluation per student for property taxes.
“The real decision for us, ‘Why not a property tax?’, the answer is simple, the school district has one of the lowest per pupil property assessed evaluations in the state,” Bailey said. “So if you add up all the property values in our school district — which is less than the city limits itself — and divide by the number of students we are one of the lowest in the state. If you add up all of the properties we have an evaluation around approximately $204 million. This is substantially lower than even Miami Trace whose evaluation is a little over $600 million. Property tax was the only way schools could levy money for a long time, but then it opened up to traditional income tax years ago, and we really think a levy on earned income is our best option.”
Due to this property evaluation, it makes the option of a property tax levy much more difficult, as any levy they pass would be worth considerably less than what they would need. Bailey said they would need roughly 8.67 mills on a levy for property evaluation if they chose that route, rather than the option they opted for. The 1 percent of wages will generate around $1.7 million per year.
“The earned income tax does not include interest, dividends, capital gains, pensions, rental income, lottery winnings and income earned by estates,” Bailey said. “This kind of holds harmless those retired folks who are simply living on retirement or pensions. These sources of income would not be taxed. This is simply a tax levy on people who work within the district. If, for instance, a retired person has a part-time job at Wal-Mart, that part-time wage will earn the district money, but any retirement they receive otherwise will be untouched.”
Bailey said this is not new to the region as several school districts nearby have been asking their district to help their schools through wages. According to the superintendent, Wilmington, Hillsboro, London, Cedar Cliff and Unioto have a traditional income tax that covers all income — even retirees — and Circleville and Greenfield have earned income tax.
“We came up with the amount we needed to do what we believe the district needs,” Bailey said. “We have not asked the voters for new operating dollars since 1991….for 27 years this November. In my opinion this is the equivalent to operating your household on the exact same income you had 27 years ago. The difference for us, as the property evaluation went down, our state and federal support went up. So we are heavily reliant and overly reliant on state and federal funds. This is not a good position because it takes the power away from the local community. They can slash money at anytime and we have to accommodate that. About 75 percent of our budget is through state and federal funds.”
The levy, according to Bailey, is more of a need than a want at this point for the district. Over the years, Bailey said the district — despite finding some great new teachers — has been unable to retain new hires as usually these teachers who are fresh out of college have a bit more freedom to find a higher paying salary elsewhere in the state if they are dissatisfied. Bailey wants to start by using the money to help look at the pay scale for teachers in the district.
“We are not looking to expand what we are doing or doing things totally different than what we have been doing,” Bailey said. “The primary reason is two-fold. The biggest of these is so we can look at the pay scale for our teachers. The pay currently, especially for our least experienced, zero to 10-year teachers, has been slipping over the years. At one time we were near the top of the regional heap for pay, but now regionally our zero to 10-year teachers fall somewhere between the sixth and eighth ranking out of 12 districts in our region. East Clinton is nearer the bottom and Miami Trace is first.”
Bailey said they want to be upfront with this levy and look at how they pay their teachers. Currently, the highest experienced teachers in the district are ranked around the third or fourth best. He said it wouldn’t make sense to be number one, as the sheer amount of money it would take is a large hurdle, but he was confident they can return their numbers to the top 25 percent of the region for all of their teachers and retain them for years to come.
“We want to move them up so we can stay competitive with our wages,” Bailey said. “It can be harder and harder with less teachers graduating from university to track down these great teachers, but then after a year, two or three years, they can go to another district and make considerably more money. What we want to do is build a faculty of educators who are committed to Washington Court House City Schools, who love it here, love our kids, but we are still able to stay competitive so they can make a good living here being a teacher. This is the primary focus of our levy. The future of our students and district depends on it.”
Though the district is planning to look at the pay scale, Bailey said they have discussed other plans for the levy as well. One issue they have continued to share with the community during board meetings is deficit spending guaranteed to come in the next year. The levy, if it passes in November, will help to alleviate this spending and improve the overall stability of the future of the district financially.
Bailey commended decisions the community has made over the last decade — including the building of the new schools — which helped to keep WCHCS above water with lower energy costs for buildings, being a financially conservative board of education and generally just great improvements all around the district. Unfortunately though, as time progresses these buildings need work to maintain them, inflation increases prices across the board and further improvements need to be made, including upgrades to security and safety systems such as more cameras in the buildings. These all cost money the district simply does not have, Bailey said.
“Regardless, let’s say that we went through negotiations and we froze everyone’s pay, we would still be in deficit spending as we are in the slide of our expenditures totaling more than our revenue for next year,” Bailey said. “Obviously as a district you don’t want to have deficit spending, you want a steady revenue so you can keep the programs and the personnel you have. If the levy doesn’t pass and we can’t get it to pass, we are going to have to look at starting to reduce programs or personnel because we have to stay fiscally responsible for the state.”
Bailey said the community has great schools and they are always expected to be great. He wants to ensure the students have the best chance academically as well as athletically, and to do this he needs the community’s help this November on Election Day.
“We will be publishing in the paper and holding community meetings at the schools, but we will hold some out in the community as well,” Bailey said. “When those come up I encourage folks to come and just get the facts about it. It is a pretty straight forward ask, and we are very clear what we need the money for. This is not a want, this is really a need if we want to further the community, and really make it a strong place to live for us and our future generations in Washington Court House.”
For more information or for questions contact Washington Court House City Schools Superintendent Tom Bailey at (740) 335-6620.
Reach Martin Graham at (740) 313-0351 or on Twitter @MartiTheNewsGuy