Lawrence County Schools cannot succeed without tax increase

Lawrence County residents will go to the polls Tuesday for a crucial vote. It is not a referendum on Superintendent Heath Grimes. Nor is it a vote on whether every action of the Lawrence County Board of Education has been perfect.

Voters will decide whether to increase property taxes by nine mills, or $90 per year for agricultural and owner-occupied residential property worth $100,000. They will decide whether Lawrence County is content with a school district that is funded at the lowest level allowable under state law. They will decide if they are comfortable with dramatic cuts to an already ailing school system as tax revenue drops even more over the next two years.

Lawrence County residents legitimately feel like punching bags. They have been ravaged by tornadoes and high unemployment, both beyond their control. The closure of International Paper, also beyond their control, was devastating.

The IP closure was especially damaging to the school system. The loss of the county’s largest employer already has caused a $650,000 shortfall for the system, and the full impact of the property-tax loss won’t be felt until the 2017-18 school year. At that point, the annual shortfall — assuming no budget cuts — will rise to $2.1 million.

That’s a huge number that will require massive cuts. The system’s entire local budget, already skeletal, is less than $9 million.

Even before the IP closure had a dramatic impact on funding, Lawrence County schools were struggling. The system was 97th in the state, out of 135 school districts, in funding per student. It will be at or near the bottom in the state if local funding drops by another 23 percent.

Opponents of the tax increase are not disputing the effect IP’s closure has had, or will have, on school finances. They are questioning decisions made by Grimes and the school board. While we suspect most of those decisions were prompted by the system’s deteriorating financial situation, opponents may be correct that management has been less than ideal.

In a well-funded school district, voters would rationally evaluate a request for a tax increase by the performance of school officials. School districts surrounding Lawrence County have far better local funding; if they sought a tax increase, prudent voters would question whether schools could operate more efficiently. Bad management would be a valid argument against a tax increase.

Lawrence County’s funding is so low, however, that the school system cannot adequately serve its students — regardless of management. If the perfect superintendent swooped into Lawrence County and confronted a per-student budget that was half that of other districts in the region, at the state minimum, 97th in the state and about to plummet, what would he do?

He would, of course, seek more funding.

While the driving force behind the effort to generate adequate school funding is the children, those most affected by the tax increase would also benefit. Lawrence County must compete with other counties for residents. It cannot do so if parents of school-age children feel compelled to flee to other school districts. Property values depend on a growing, or at least static, population. So does business success. Especially with the loss of a major employer, Lawrence County needs good schools.

If critics of Grimes and the school board are right, then there should be changes in leadership. But changes in leadership will not address the inescapable fact that Lawrence County children cannot hope for a good education with funding levels this low, and about to go lower.

Lawrence County residents have been battered by events over which they have no control. The fate of their school system, however, is in their hands.

(Published April 21, 2015)

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