Not just coal, not just eastern Kentucky
Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
There are no unmined coal tax revenues to lose in Fulton County Schools in far western Kentucky or in Fairview Independent in northeastern Kentucky.
But the big Goodyear tire plant near Fulton just across the state line closed a few years ago, and the AK Steel facility in Boyd County, where Fairview is located, has been shuttered since December 2015. The resulting economic and demographic blows to both those school systems is similar to the shock districts in eastern Kentucky have faced with the vanishing unmined coal tax revenue.
“Basically, we’re hemorrhaging to death here now. We’re losing $40,000 a month in revenue,” said Fairview Independent Superintendent Michael Taylor. When AK Steel closed down, so did the major source of the district’s utility tax revenues.
“We’re a small independent – very dependent on the utility tax. And when it went away, we have struggled since then. We’ve had to make numerous cuts. I’ve cut personnel so much and really I can’t cut that anymore and still function as a district,” Taylor said. “There are other districts like us, small independent districts, that are really struggling at this time.”
Fairview has lost about 100 students in the last three years and is down to 740 as parents left to find work. Taylor calls the combination of declining enrollment and plunging utility tax revenue “a double whammy.”
“It’s sad because this school is everything to this community,” he said. “When you go to sports events you see three generations there of people. There’s a lot pride in Fairview.”
For Fulton County, the situation is a combination of population trends and shrinking assessments.
“The problem for us right now is cash flow; we’re in a small county,” said Fulton County Schools Superintendent Aaron Collins.
There are few businesses in the heavily agricultural county, he said. “We love our farms and that’s who we are and we have a big FFA program and we love it. But it doesn’t pay the bills when it comes to the way that we do assessments and when we do local income, when we do school taxes.”
Property assessments have been decreasing steadily over the past four or five years. At the same time, even though people are leaving the area for jobs elsewhere, Fulton County’s student population has increased. But the additional state money for the larger enrollment doesn’t offset the loss of local revenues because of the shrinking tax base.
“Every county in this area is losing population,” Collins said. “So if people are leaving and property assessments go down, what’s automatically going to happen with the cash flow?”
To cope, Fulton County has combined a couple of administrative positions into one, used an online program to teach Spanish, converted an assistant principal position to a school administrative manager post, went from two family resource/youth services center positions to one and cut some school-level jobs.
The Fairview school board set its tax rate to generate 4 percent more revenue this year, Taylor said, “and we know we’re going to have to take the 4 percent for years to come.” But the Westwood community where the district is based is small, and the “property taxes from that alone are not enough to sustain us,” he said.
“We’re already looking at what we can do for next year,” Taylor said, and he’s worried about what’s coming in increased contributions to the County Employees Retirement System and other additional costs that might come from legislative action.
Collins said the issue in his area is compounded by the fact that Fulton is a persistent poverty county. He is hoping the area’s newly awarded Work Ready Skills Initiative grant will help with economic development efforts; nearly a half million dollars is earmarked for his district, including its area tech center and computer lab. The district is also offering its students classes locally through West Kentucky Community and Technical College. “That’s why you’re seeing that growth in students because we’re bringing those classes here,” he said.
Academically, Collins said, “things are going very well. We just don’t have the money to sustain year after year after year.”
Though Taylor pledges that Fairview will survive, he echoes Collins: “You can only cut so much. You have to have revenue coming in.
“Every minute of the day I’m trying to think about how we can keep our doors open. And that’s just all I can think about right now, is saving Fairview. I don’t want to be the last superintendent of Fairview.”