LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A judge has struck down a recall petition challenging the 7-cent property tax rate increase sought by the Jefferson County Board of Education, striking a potentially decisive blow in efforts to block the higher tax from taking effect.
Jefferson Circuit Judge Brian Edwards ruled Friday that the petition did not have enough signatures from “registered and qualified voters” to successfully place the matter before voters.
Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw's office "erred in certifying a petition that materially failed to comply with the clear requirements of" state law and "failed to contain the requisite number of valid siganure entries," Edwards wrote in his order.
Edwards also rejected the petition committee's claim that the school board erred procedurally in its vote authorizing the tax rate increase, which is expected to generate 9.5% more in annual revenue.
His order can be appealed, and the recall petition committee, No JCPS Tax Hike, indicated it will challenge the ruling.
"After all that effort on the part of citizen volunteers, following legal procedures and gathering enough signatures, the people should have the right to vote on the tax hike and not have their voices silenced," Theresa Camoriano, one of the leaders of the tax recall push, said in a lengthy message to supporters.
The question of approving the 7-cent property tax rate increase already appears on ballots in the Jefferson County Public Schools taxing district.
If not overturned on appeal, the district's property tax rate will automatically increase to 80.6 cents per $100 and votes will not be counted.
Edwards ultimately sided with the school board and the Jefferson County Teachers Association, which found thousands of questionable signatures that were counted by Holsclaw’s office after a review of the submitted petition.
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and JCTA President Brent McKim praised the decision during a news conference Friday.
"This may be the most important day in the history of our school district," Pollio said. "I can't say enough about what this means for the kids of this community."
Alice Houston, chairwoman of the nonprofit Yes 4 JCPS that has raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing the tax rate increase, also heralded the decision.
"We strongly believe that all of our students deserve an excellent education regardless of where they live, the color of their skin or the wealth of their family," Houston said in a statement.
"Judge Edwards’ ruling restores the revenue increase approved by the school board and allows JCPS to move forward with its plans to provide additional resources to the students and schools most in need. Every additional dollar will be allocated to improve student outcomes and create a more equitable school system."
The petition was ultimately certified by Holsclaw's office with 38,507 signatures, but Edwards found that Holsclaw’s office “inexplicably ignored its own findings that 2,376 of those signatures contained errors and allowed those entries to be included in its final number of certified valid entries.”
Edwards found that Holsclaw's office also counted 843 duplicate signatures and 123 signatures from people who were not registered voters.
He further determined at 934 signatures were altered before the petition was submitted, which Camoriano admitted to in a deposition. She said she only intended to correct minor errors using a Republican Party voter database after Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, provided access.
"If they gave me an address, I'm assuming that's their address," Camoriano said during her deposition. "You know, it might have had a typo or something in it that needed to be fixed."
Edwards ultimately found no reason to question an analysis conducted by Jim Sprigler, owner and senior developer of HALO Group, that determined only
Edwards also sided with the school board and teachers union in their arguments that nothing could have prevented anyone with access to a voter database from undermining the petition process "by entering hundreds of thousands of signatures."
Sprigler's analysis determined that Holsclaw's office should have only counted 33,271 signatures for the petition, 2,246 short of 35,517 needed for certification.
Holsclaw's office certified 38,507 of the 40,320 signatures submitted by the No JCPS Tax Hike petition committee. However, the clerk's office allowed more than 2,000 signatures in which it identified errors.
"No attempt was made to ensure the security and confirm the authenticiy of the electronic signatures which constituted the overwhelming number of the signatures on the petition," Edwards wrote.
Frank Friday, the county clerk's government affairs director, said the office will evaluate whether to appeal the ruling in the next few days.
"We had hoped the people would get to decide this issue," he said.
The ruling wasn't a surprise for Friday, though he maintained that the clerk's office appropriately counted signatures on the petition based on legal precedence.
"This is also the first time in Kentucky, and really anywhere, that a case has involved electronically gathered public question signatures," Friday said in an email to WDRB News. "So how a higher court might evaluate this matter would be of national significance."
The rate increase is expected to net JCPS $54 million more in property tax receipts each year, and the school board has already earmarked that new revenue for school construction, racial equity initiatives, additional resources for high-need schools and extra instructional time for students as part of the district's Future State plan.
"Our children deserve the same resources that Oldham County, Anchorage Independent and Fayette County have in their schools," Pollio said. "... This is a game-changer for us, and it will change outcomes for JCPS."
He isn't sure what will happen once the case is appealed, but Pollio said he will "continue to battle and make the case" for more tax revenue for Kentucky's largest school district.
"The future is much brighter today because of this decision," McKim said.
Thousands of people have already cast their vote for or against the JCPS tax rate increase, but what should you do if you haven't voted yet? Joshua Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky specializing in election law, said voters should make their decisions and let the courts figure out the rest.
"Voters should just vote in the election as normal," Douglas said. "Right now, the order says that that vote won't count, but it could be reversed, and, if it's reversed, those votes will make a difference. So voters really should ignore this order essentially and decide however they're going to want to vote, yes or no. Let the courts figure this out after the election."
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