Nickel tax

Nickel tax

The campaign in Henderson County didn’t end with the nickel tax victory. The district places these signs not only at sites where major work is easily seen from the street, but outside every school in which improvements, such as upgraded lighting, are being made inside with nickel tax revenue. (Photo courtesy of Henderson County Schools)
Getting up the nerve for a nickel?
District leaders who have been there say focus on kids, cohesive message and community players
Kentucky School Advocate
April 2017
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
Fear of voter recall may have kept some school districts from trying to levy a nickel tax to help finance school construction or renovation, but there are signs that more Kentucky school boards are getting past that. 
“Under the current funding, I don’t see how you make capital construction improvements to your district without that additional funding at this point,” said Marion County school board Vice Chairman Kaelin Reed, whose district’s recallable nickel tax was supported by 54 percent of voters in last November’s general election.

“I think a lot of them are learning it’s not impossible to get one passed, ending the fear a little bit,” said Dr. Robert Tarvin, former head of the Kentucky School Facilities Construction Commission who is with Ross, Sinclaire & Associates, a private firm that works with school bond issues.

Tarvin said he sees the trend continuing of more districts seeking this source of funding, which is generally equalized by the state. In his work, he said, “I see three or four constantly.”

First steps
Planning came first, Henderson County Schools Superintendent Marganna Stanley said of the district’s successful efforts to overcome a nickel tax referendum. “By that I mean that your current facility data that you’re going to sell your nickel on has to be a reality,” she said. “It has to be straight up and real.”

In the Marion County district, everyone who attended a public forum in the run-up to the board vote on the nickel tax issue was given a brochure to communicate the facility realities. “It was everything from how much does a classroom cost to when the building was built, when it was renovated and how old the HVAC systems were,” Superintendent Taylora Schlosser said.

Stanley said the planning in Henderson County began first with board members: explaining the nickel tax to them and “the significance of our needs and how we had to change our course or in 10 years we were going to be even deeper.”

From there, the pacing was deliberate, with the district holding three forums at different locations to get community input, Stanley said.

The board later voted unanimously for the tax, but was not able to stave off a recall petition, with the referendum slated for the November ballot. In the fall, “We hit the campaign trail hard,” Stanley said. Start too early, “and they’ll get tired of hearing about it.” The tax squeaked by with a 157-vote margin.

A pro-tax community group in Lewis County did its groundwork early on, preparing flyers and handouts and coming up with “a plan to be successful at the ballot,” said Superintendent Jamie Weddington, at the time the district’s pupil personnel director. The nickel tax there later was approved by nearly 62 percent of voters.

In breaking the ice for a nickel tax, some districts have used a show-and-tell tactic. The Marion County board held one meeting “in a school that was in desperate need,” said Schlosser. During open house tours of the same school, “We would walk them in the old library and show them a picture of a new library on a big board. We felt like pictures just spoke a thousand words.”

Larry Coldiron Jr., Raceland-Worthington Independent’s superintendent, likewise said his board’s vote on the nickel tax was held in the 1927 elementary school that will be replaced with its revenues.
Community players
Weddington attributes the success of his district’s December 2015 special referendum to the pro-nickel tax community group that led the campaigning.

“They had a core group of people that were out in the community working and putting out information and sharing it wherever people would listen, getting the message out about what it would mean for our students and our county,” said Weddington. The group had an active Facebook page and held community meetings.

Community volunteers have more credibility than school folks because “they don’t necessarily have a direct tie to it,” he said. “And you need people that are well-spoken and respected in your community. We had people who were very well-respected in the small pockets of our community.”

A small group of businesspeople raised funds for Henderson County’s nickel tax campaign, Stanley said, and some elected officials helped. This helped pay for printed materials and “Investing in Excellence” T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

What Schlosser calls “a grassroots effort” in Marion County included strong backing from the local chamber of commerce and economic development agency. Other key people in the community were identified, “and then we got key people in the community to go out and talk to other key people,” she said.

Getting out the word
“Make it ugly.” That was the advice Henderson County’s then-public relations chief gave the district. “We put four, one-minute short videos together and played them at the forums; we placed them on our website,” Stanley said. “We went into our boiler rooms and showed the public what our systems looked like. We showed where there were water leaks, where there was old plumbing and old sewer systems.”

The district also produced a video in which students ranging from preschool through high school talked about what they needed, ending with a preschooler saying, “Invest in me.”

The videos were played when Stanley talked to civic groups and could be shown on iPads on the campaign trail.

Local newspaper support can play an important role. The Lebanon Enterprise even devoted nearly an entire issue right before the election to positive articles about what the tax would do and exhaustively detailing the facility needs.

In using social media, Schlosser said Marion County leaders favored having parents and teachers post supportive photos and messages on their personal accounts rather than using the district’s official electronic communications. “It couldn’t be seen as the Taylora Schlosser nickel,” the superintendent said. “It had to be seen as the people’s nickel and the kids’ nickel.”
“You have to get your story out there and what the facts are because there are all kinds of other stories out there that may not be 100 percent true and accurate,” Weddington said.

Having a “unified, common, streamlined message” is key to campaigning, Stanley said. Henderson County chose “Investing in Excellence.” The message, she said, was sold based on three needs: technology infrastructure, 21st century learning spaces and capital maintenance.
Owen Daugherty, a fifth-grader at West Marion Elementary, is all smiles next to one of the
district’s pro-nickel tax signs. The message was conveyed not only by the signs, but by parents
and other supporters who took photos like this and posted them on their Facebook pages.
(Photo courtesy of Marion County Schools) 

Weddington said besides the message that nickel tax revenue can be used only for construction and renovation, proponents in the Lewis County campaign also emphasized that the improvements would be good for the community as a whole.

“We’re hoping that when industry comes here and looks, they’ll see a nice, new $18 million school, and that’s a pretty good incentive to come to an area,” he said.

Lewis County’s nickel revenues were tied to replacing a 1930s-era elementary school, so the district had to overcome the issue of only one school benefiting. Weddington said the response was: “This is going to be the first one that comes out of it, but after we get this one done, then in a few years we’ll have some more money to go and fix another school. If we don’t get this money, then it’s going to be 30 years before we get enough money to fix this school, so therefore they’re all going to be bad by the time that rolls around.”

Schlosser said one argument she used in Marion County contrasted the benefits of the nickel tax – equalized by the state – with increasing the tax rate to earn 4 percent more in revenue. The former gave the district a $28 million bonding potential compared with the latter’s $5 million, plus she calculated that the 4 percent option would eventually generate a larger average tax bill for residents.

Targeting voters
Weddington said the Lewis County pro-tax group talked to people who had signed the recall petition and tried to dispel rumors around the issue. “I feel like several of the people who signed the petition actually voted for the tax,” he said.

The core district group that did a lot of the campaigning in Marion County, which had already seen the nickel tax defeated in an earlier referendum, took a different approach. “We didn’t go out into the communities and do town hall forums, because the only people that show up are the people who are against it,” Schlosser explained.

Instead, supporters in Marion County focused on getting pro-tax residents to the polls and also targeted those who might not have had information on the levy.
Board View: Deeper lessons learned in Marion
Kaelin Reed learned a few lessons from his experience in stumping for his school district’s nickel tax, and not all them were about taxes or lobbying.

Reed, vice chairman of the Marion County school board, was one of the public faces out in front talking about the tax, which would provide needed revenue to replace and upgrade aging buildings. As he talked to people who were against the nickel, he said he learned not to close any doors.

“Just because someone is opposed to a tax increase doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t support the mission of the school board; it doesn’t mean they don’t support us,” Reed explained. A tax, he said, “is a base financial fear that a lot of people have.”

“A lot of times you would get to the end of a conversation with someone and you would say, ‘You know what – it’s clear that we’re not going to agree on this issue, but you’re obviously engaged and you care about this issue. And that tells me that there’s going to be some other point in the future where we’re going to be able to work together on a project that we can both get behind.’

“So I wanted to make sure we didn’t burn any bridges.”

Reed said as an attorney, his first instinct “is to counterpunch and refute. But a lot of smart people around me really convinced me that the thing to do was to stay positive, talk about what the plan was for the district, talk about what extra opportunities we were going to be able to provide. That’s what I learned,” he said.

The campaigning and outcome of the nickel tax referendum also reinforced his views of his community. “We look out for our own and we have a very strong sense of community here,” Reed said. “We’re not just a suitcase community … the people who live in Marion County live and work here. They are engaged in community issues.”

He said the nickel issue was worth getting behind, even though it might come at a personal cost. “It’s difficult because we all are board members, but also I’ve got a business in town, and anytime you take sides on a controversial issue, you’re going to turn off a certain segment of the public that you may hope to provide services to,” he said.

Reed said it stings a bit that though the tax was approved countywide, he’s not sure it passed in his own electoral division.

“I knew there was going to be some pushback and I was willing to accept the consequences if it didn’t go my way, and I’m willing to accept the consequences if that’s the issue a couple years from now when I have to run again,” he said. “If that’s the issue that ends my time on the board, I’m proud of what we’ve done with that.”
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