LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Thursday a lower court’s ruling that the recall petition challenging a 7-cent property tax rate increase for Jefferson County Public Schools did not have enough signatures to place the matter before voters in 2020.
The high court also affirmed Jefferson Circuit Judge Brian Edwards’s decision to dismiss the petition committee’s claim that the Jefferson County Board of Education erred procedurally in its vote authorizing the tax rate increase, which is expected to generate 9.5% more in annual revenue.
Kentucky's largest school district expects the higher property tax rate to yield $54 million in additional revenue each year.
Votes on the tax recall were collected but not counted in 2020 pending legal challenges. The school board, which voted 5-2 to approve the new property tax rate, and Jefferson County Teachers Association initially sued, arguing that Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw’s office erred in certifying the petition with 38,507 signatures.
Edwards determined that the petition should have fallen about 2,000 signatures short of the 35,517 needed for certification because of erroneous, duplicate and altered entries.
The "No JCPS Tax Hike" petition committee appealed the lower court's ruling, but the Kentucky Supreme Court questioned the nonexistent security of the ballot initiative's process. It was the first time tax recall petition signatures were collected electronically, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There was no requirement that each person electronically signing the petition respond to a callback or acknowledgement email or text message and there was no proof that any other verification procedure was used," the Kentucky Supreme Court's opinion says. "Instead, a person signing the electronic petition need only type a name and address, social security number or birth month, and the name and number of their voting precinct. In an electronic environment where generic information such as this is discoverable, such information, alone, is insufficient to establish attribution. Based on the proof, there is simply no way to determine the electronic signatures are attributable to the person they purport to be."
"We hold the total absence of any security measures to ensure an electronic signature was in fact made by the purported signatory negates the petition," the high court’s opinion says.
The Kentucky Supreme Court also determined that the Jefferson County Board of Education did not err in its handling of the property tax rate increase notices.
The school board did not have the previous year's general tax rate on its May 2020 rate increase notices because property assessments had not been completed and personal property tax rate returns were not yet due, which the high court determined "is not fatally defective" to the process.
"The statutes simply do not provide for the circumstance of information required to be published in the notice being unavailable in time for a tax recall to proceed to a regular election ballot in the same year the tax is passed," the state Supreme Court's opinion says.
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said the district is "pleased" with Thursday's ruling, calling the decision "a win for the children of Jefferson County."
Local property owners have already been paying the district's property tax rate of 80.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, and Pollio said JCPS has accumulated $74.5 million from the higher rate in an escrow account.
JCPS can now deploy those dollars in investments already pledged by the board, such as facility improvements, resourcing high-poverty schools and racial equity initiatives, Pollio said.
The tax rate increase almost doubled the district's bonding capacity to about $525 million, he said.
"Each school building that the child goes to is very symbolic for how much the community cares for the well being and the education of those students, and they are now going to see very different school buildings than they've ever seen before," Pollio said.
Members of the "No JCPS Tax Hike" petition committeesaid they were "very disappointed" with the state Supreme Court ruling in a statement Thursday.
"However, we believe we are much farther ahead than we would have been if we had not challenged the tax hike," the group said. "We would like to thank everyone who signed the petition and everyone who helped us in this effort."
The petition committee noted lawmakers greatly lowered the threshold for petition signatures to challenge school board tax increases to 5,000 registered voters instead of 10% of the number of voters in the most recent presidential election.
That lowered hurdle to challenge property tax rate increases expected to generate more than 4% in new revenue will be a "challenge," Pollio said.
"I believe anything that makes it more difficult to do this is problematic because once again I'll say it: We are not getting the funding that we need from the state level in order to address the needs that we have," he said. "This is not just a JCPS thing."
The "No JCPS Tax Hike" petition committee also hopes to see more changes from Frankfort, such as allowing school board tax increases to automatically go before voters if the new rate is expected to generate more than 4% of revenue, according to its statement.
The group also said the ruling gives guidance on improving security measures for future digital petition drives.
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