Commentary: Elizabethtown Ind. board chair rejects editorial suggestion taxes rose because public was silent; "Frankfort refuses to lead, so school boards must"

News-Enterprise, Elizabethtown, Oct. 2, 2016

School board must answer the challenge
by Matt Wyatt

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards.”

— Mark Twain

I love that Mark Twain quote. When our school board faces tough decisions and obstacles that potentially could bring opposition or critique, I remember what Mr. Twain said about school boards. Those of us who choose to serve do so not for the small amount of money we receive and we certainly don’t serve for the “prestige.”

We serve because we are committed to making sure our children have the best education possible. We serve because we deeply care about what kind of future our community will have and we aren’t the kind of folks who stand on the sidelines and complain while doing nothing.

We are charged with running a system that will send out into the world the next generation of responsible citizens that include creators, builders, educators and leaders.

We do not shrink from that responsibility. We welcome it.

This guest column is in response to the Sept. 25 editorial in The News-Enterprise titled “School boards see silence as golden.”

In the normal course of events, editorial boards are charged with keeping in check those of us who hold public office. However, when motives are falsely attributed to someone, then the writers should be corrected and called to task.

The editorial board seems to believe the Elizabethtown Board of Education decided to raise property taxes because nobody showed up at our publicly held meeting.

One school board member was quoted as saying that in his eight years on the board “not one person (has come) to this room for a tax hearing.”

Our superintendent was quoted as saying, “people are satisfied with the way we’re being with our money and believe that it’s going for a good cause.”

The editorial board took those two quotes and speculated the board of education decided to raise tax rates because nobody spoke up. The fact is, we chose to raise property taxes because we choose to continue the forward momentum of academic excellence in the Elizabethtown Independent School district.

While every school district in the Common­wealth has been short-changed by Frankfort over the last nine years, Elizabethtown Independent has flourished because the board of education, administration, faculty, staff and great students decide every day to make this one of the best districts in the Commonwealth.

The funding school districts receive from Frankfort for each student — often referred to as SEEK funding — has not been effectively increased since 2007. Kentucky is the only state in the nation not to have a per pupil increase since the recession.

In the single year when SEEK funding was raised, it effectively was neutralized by a state-mandated teachers’ pay increase.

Despite flat-lining state funding, the cost of educating our students does not. The price of teachers’ salaries and benefits, utilities, transportation, supplies, building maintenance and food has risen in the past nine years, but the money Frankfort sends to the districts has not.

In fact, even with the additional tax revenue coming in, our working budget shows that our expenses are projected to be $500,000 more than our revenue for 2016-17.

Moreover, 82 percent of our budget goes to salaries and benefits and the rest goes to pay insurance, buy textbooks, transport students and pay for utilities. We look for every penny to pinch while knowing what we will get from Frankfort will not be sufficient.

Under these circumstances, when our representatives in Frankfort refuse to lead, our local school boards must. Raising property taxes and cutting spending is the only means that local school boards have to make ends meet.

Increasing revenue through a tax increase always is a difficult choice and we did not reach this decision lightly. However, we also recognize the consequences we would face without a tax increase.

We would have to reduce the number of teachers and increase class size. We would not be able to make the necessary improvements to our infrastructure. We would allow our technology to stagnate. We could lose talented educators to other states or districts because of lack of competitive pay.

The editorial board called into question our “leadership” for increasing our funding in order to pay our bills, but I believe making tough decisions based on the real needs of our students, families and community constitutes real leadership.

To that point, this week we received the highly anticipated results of how remarkable Elizabethtown Independent Schools is performing. Our middle school made one of the largest jumps in the Commonwealth and is now the highest performing middle school locally and ranks 28th out of 326 middle schools in Kentucky; Elizabethtown High School now is ranked the 10th best high school in Kentucky and continues to earn the title of “distinguished.” The Elizabethtown Independent Schools district, as a whole, now is ranked the 17th best in the Commonwealth.

The continuous improvement that our schools have made has been nothing short of amazing and everyone who lives in Eliza­betht­own should be proud of what is going on at EIS.

Our teachers and staff are outstanding. Our administrators are tireless. Our school board members are not afraid to lead. When all of us play our roles without fear of criticism, the results we achieve for our students and the future of Elizabethtown speak for themselves.

Matt Wyatt is chairman of the Elizabethtown Independent Schools’ board of education.

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