LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools stressed the need for new and renovated schools while a leader of an anti-tax group said the district should do more with its current revenue rather than seeking higher property taxes Wednesday during a conversation hosted by the Louisville Forum.
Theresa Camoriano, a patent attorney who heads the Louisville Tea Party, also speculated that JCPS added the names of dead voters on the “No JCPS Tax Hike” petition, which is the subject of a lawsuit challenging its validity.
The Jefferson County Board of Education and Jefferson County Teachers Association have asked Jefferson Circuit Judge Brian Edwards to throw out the petition because the teachers’ union indicated its analysis found more than 1,000 duplicate signatures and other signs of potentially fraudulent online entries.
“I have no idea how dead people put their names on a petition,” Camoriano said. “… When you’re tied up in court the way we are, who knows where it will go, but I do believe that the petition is proper and that we have enough good signatures for it to be on the ballot.”
The petitioners submitted 40,320 signatures in hopes of placing the 7-cent property tax rate increase on the Nov. 3 ballot, of which 38,507 were certified by Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw’s office.
The Jefferson County Board of Education voted 5-2 in May to increase the district’s property tax rate from 73.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 80.6 cents per $100 of property value, which is expected to generate $51.5 million more in annual tax revenue for Kentucky’s largest school district.
More than 35,000 signatures were needed to place the proposed tax rate increase before voters this fall. Most of the signatures were gathered online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The question will appear on ballots in the JCPS taxing district despite an ongoing lawsuit challenging the validity of thousands of signatures, potentially negating the recall petition. The two sides are scheduled to appear back in Jefferson Circuit Court on Oct. 9.
Pollio said the district found “many problems” with the signatures certified by Holsclaw’s office.
“We’re going to make the case the best we can and hope the community supports it at the election,” he said. “I’m not an attorney and can’t say exactly what will happen in the courts.”
Pollio and others at JCPS will make their pitch to voters with the help of Danville-based Osborne & Associates, who will be paid up to $575,000 for polling, mail advertising and other services ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
Osborne & Associates worked for seven of eight successful ballot initiatives in Indiana this year, he said.
Camoriano said the anti-tax group is “very much a grassroots operation” without a budget. She directed viewers during Wednesday’s virtual Louisville Forum meeting to donate on the group’s website.
“I think what we’re getting is more of the same promises we’ve been getting for the past 30 years, and I hope that this time we demand something different,” Camoriano said. “I think this time we need to say, ‘No.’ Show us the results. Show us your changes. Show us the things that you’re going to do differently that don’t cost more money, that just require leadership and determination, and show us what you can do and will do before we start talking about raising people’s taxes.”
Pollio focused on the district’s facility needs throughout his remarks at Wednesday’s Louisville Forum meeting.
The school board will pass a resolution soon directing 25% of new property tax revenue to building new schools and renovating existing ones with more than $600 million more in bonding capacity, he said. The remaining 75% will fund greater student supports, he said.
Pollio particularly prioritized building new middle and high schools in west Louisville, where the third floor of the Academy @ Shawnee will be reopened for the first time in decades after being condemned and the newest school, Central High School, was built in 1952.
Central “is past end of life right now” and could be forced to close “at any time” because of building issues, he said.
Proposed changes to the district’s student assignment plan will require at least one new high school and two new middle schools in west Louisville to provide families there more options on which schools their children attend, Pollio has previously said.
“If this community is willing to wait five to 10 years to address our facility issue, it may well be too late,” he said Wednesday. “We may be shutting down schools. We may be shutting down floors. We may be condemning schools and sending kids to other neighborhoods.”
Camoriano questioned whether JCPS could finance new school construction with its existing revenue, though she could not provide specific examples of wasteful spending by JCPS.
Still, she questioned the logic of pursuing a property tax increase during the COVID-19 pandemic and said the higher tax bills could force some people from their homes as they struggle to make ends meet financially.
“There’s a moral obligation to use that tax money wisely and efficiently for its intended purpose,” said Camoriano, who also said she had been "attacked" for living in Anchorage and not in the JCPS taxing district. “In this particular instance, JCPS ranks high in spending and low in performance.”
If the property tax rate increase is successful, Pollio believes JCPS will be a different school district within the next decade. He noted that other school districts in Kentucky, such as Fayette County Public Schools and Anchorage Independent, have higher property tax rates than JCPS.
“If you drive around any other major cities in this country, you will see state-of-the-art learning facilities,” he said. “JCPS has not done that. We can complain about what should have happened decades ago or years ago, but all we an do right now is say what we have is unacceptable.”
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