‘We need your help’: Community meetings discuss referendum, future of school district

Around 30 people attended the June 7 Brown County Schools community meeting to learn more about a proposed operating referendum that will appear on the ballot this November and offer input on the future of the school district. How much of a referendum rate the school district will ask of property taxpayers and what that money will fund has not been finalized. The third, and final, community meeting was scheduled for June 14.

This fall, voters may be asked to approve another operating referendum for Brown County Schools to help offset a potential cash balance shortfall by 2025.

That is the message Superintendent Emily Tracy delivered during two community meetings about the school district’s upcoming operating referendum that will be on the ballot this fall. A third meeting was scheduled for June 14 at noon at the Educational Service Center.

The meetings were set to receive input from parents and other community members about how funding from the proposed operating referendum should be spent and what the rate should be.

In 2016, a referendum passed with the support of 59% of voters. Starting with May 2017 tax bills, Brown County property taxpayers began seeing an increase of 8 cents per $100 of assessed value on their tax rate.

The referendum money, which also comes from property taxes, has its own fund. One penny went directly to the Brown County Career Resource Center and 7 cents to pay staff salaries, benefits and raises.

Money from an operating referendum can only be spent on operating the district and not on building a new facility or completing a capital project.

Around 80 people — including those with and without students in the schools — attended the first two community meetings on May 31 and June 7.

“As a lifelong educator, it was refreshing to see the active involvement of so many of our residents as we work together to chart a positive course for the future of our community,” Tracy said last week.

Brown County Schools employees also attended the meetings to help facilitate small group discussions following presentations from Tracy and the district’s financial advisors Baker Tilly.

Questions in those discussions centered around teacher salary increases, class sizes, how the new referendum money would be used, how many people attend programs at the CRC and what will happen if a referendum fails.

According to the presentation from Baker Tilly, an 8 cent referendum would cost a property taxpayer an additional $78.24 a year for a home with a gross value of $200,000. After standard deductions are applied the net assessed value of that home would be $97,750, according to Baker Tilly.

The presentation included projections for how much of an impact 9, 10, 11 and 12 cents referendum rates would have on property taxes.

If the school district decides to asks for 9 cents per $100 of assessed value that would cost a property taxpayer an additional $87.96 per year.

Under a rate of 12 cents per $100 of assessed value a property taxpayer would pay an extra $117.36 per year.

Proposed uses of the new referendum would be used “to retain and recruit outstanding teachers and staff; keep class sizes to a manageable level; support and provide social and emotional health; fund the Career Resource Center and operate the community’s Early Childhood Center,” Tracy said.

Brown County Schools will open its fourth preschool program for 3 to 5 year olds in Nashville when the Early Childhood Center opens at the Educational Service Center this upcoming school year. The goal is to eventually expand the Early Childhood Center in Nashville to care for children from birth to 5 years old.

The district also plans to work with area nonprofits and private donors to help those families who have difficulty paying for childcare.

During the meetings community members recommended ways for the district to improve for the future including selling the old CRC and the administrative office buildings; outsourcing student transportation and reviewing options to reroute bus routes.

Why?

Brown County Schools receives $6,236.35 in “tuition support” from the state for each student who is enrolled on two different student count days in September and February.

Preschool and CRC students are not eligible for tuition support from the state. That money goes into the district’s education fund, which pays teachers and staff. Education fund dollars can only be utilized for instructional purposes.

The district also has an operations fund, which is funded by property taxes. That fund is used to pay expenses not directly related to students, like transportation and bus expenses, utilities and insurance, and the superintendent’s salary.

The referendum has its owns fund to pay for staff salaries. Currently the district receives about $1 million a year based on the assessed value in the county. Since 2016 when the last referendum was passed, teacher salaries have been raised each year, following a nine year salary freeze. New teachers now make $41,000 a year in Brown County Schools, which is required by law.

Due to declining enrollment, the school district receives less money from the state each year because there are less students here.

The school district continues to see declining enrollment for a variety of reasons including a lack of affordable housing and jobs for young families, so additional money for teachers continued to come from the referendum voters approved in 2016.

For several years, Brown County Schools has continued to see a decline in enrollment. This affects the district’s budget, causing cuts to be made. Since 2016, the district has cut more than $4.5 million from its budget using a variety of methods, including not replacing teachers who leave and not hiring certified teachers to teach preschool or art and music in the elementary schools.

Other budget modifications include switching to a third party management for food service and teaching certain Career and Technical Education courses that are reimbursable by the state.

The district has cut $4,573,000 from its budget since 2016 when the last referendum was approved, according to Tracy.

“Making those cuts and doing those savings, being good stewards of that (referendum) money was tough on the district. It’s tough. It’s tough to take resources away,” Tracy said.

But enrollment — and ultimately state funding — will continue to decline, according to projections from the district.

Next school year, the enrollment is expected to be 1,542, which will be down from 1,569 students enrolled as of the most recent count. That equals a loss of $168,381.45 in tuition support.

In 2019, Brown County Schools received a $5.5 million federal National Institute for Excellence in Teaching grant aimed at supporting and investing in all of the district’s teachers. With that money, the district has designated a few teachers in each building as “master” and “mentor” teachers to help other teachers learn different methods of reaching students.

“That grant was transformational in our district because it gave us the opportunity to grow our teachers, provide better professional development and provide world class opportunities,” Tracy said at the June 7 meeting.

At the end of the five years, the school district would have to be prepared to sustain funding for professional development and bonuses for teachers that were covered by the grant. But due to cuts at the federal level, the grant stopped at three years and $3 million instead of five years, Tracy said.

This means the district had to absorb the additional expenses sooner than expected.

“We have the teachers, initiatives in place. We can’t pull the rug out from under us,” Tracy said.

The price tag to continue paying mentor and master teachers in each school building is $480,000 a year.

If a referendum is not approved — requiring the district to pay for raises from its education fund — and the district wants to continue to pay for certain NIET initiatives, the cash balance for the district could potentially go down to $90,000 by 2024 with possibly no cash balance in 2025.

Overall if a referendum is not approved this election, the district will have to increase class sizes, eliminate teaching positions and make “major changes to our academic and student support programs,” Tracy said.

Programs at the CRC, Early Childhood Center and elementary school science programs will also face “substantial cuts” along with programs in theater, art and music. Athletic programs will also face “an uncertain future,” Tracy continued.

In the past five years, 13,000 people have attended the CRC for a class or provided service.

During the small group discussions on June 7, questions were brought up about how many people use services at the CRC.

The high school equivalency program has 13 students enrolled so far this program year, which is June 30 to July 1. Currently 75 students are finishing up their high school equivalency. Another 22 students have received a certification, such as certified clinical medical assistant and certified nursing assistant. Those numbers do not include the popular master electrician program, according to Tracy.

Referendum dollars will also help the district follow its vision of “World class opportunities. Small school relationships. Lifelong impact,” Tracy said.

In order to provide world class opportunities, Tracy said the school district has to design a system to serve everybody in the community, from birth to adult, and that the referendum dollars will help them accomplish that.

She continued that the school district works to serve the community, such as creating a new Early Childhood Center or opening the Brown County Health and Wellness Center at Eagle Park.

“For Brown County Schools to open up their own clinic and offer it out to the community has not only helped save our money here for our own employees, but it has also opened doors for people to utilize our clinic as well. World class opportunities,” she said.

Towards the end of the community meeting last week, Tracy said the district needs help in determining what rate to ask of taxpayers and how that money should be spent.

“If we’re asking to increase property taxes we need you to help us with what you want it to go towards,” she said.

”That’s why we need you. We need your help to help us to determine rate and what we will use it for.”

If the decision is made to put a referendum on the ballot this fall, the Brown County School Board of Trustees will have to adopt a resolution establishing the rate and approving the language for the ballot at a July meeting.

How much will I pay?

According to Policy Analytics, the average home value in Brown County for 2022 is $197,363.

During recent community meetings, Brown County Schools financial advisor Baker Tilly presented the impact five different operating referendum rates would have on local property taxes if approved this fall.

Here is how much a homeowner could pay additionally per year on a home with a gross assessed value of $200,000 and after deductions are applied if an operating referendum is approved:

8 cents per $100 assessed value: $78.24 per year

9 cents per $100 assessed value: $87.96 per year

10 cents per $100 assessed value: $97.80 per year

11 cents per $100 assessed value: $107.52 per year

12 cents per $100 assessed value: $117.36 per year

*The actual tax cost changes are dependent on the county’s assessed value.

SOURCE: Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors

Frequently asked questions

Community members had many questions for Brown County Schools following two community meetings about a proposed operating referendum to appear on the ballot this fall. The following are answers from the school district provided by Superintendent Emily Tracy.

Q: How will the referendum money affect teacher salaries?

A: Referendum dollars will be utilized to support our 118 teachers and our 255 staff members. The exact amount of those raises will be determined via the negotiations process.

Q: How much have teacher salaries increased?

A: Teacher salaries have been raised each year since our last referendum in 2016 and after a nine year freeze. Legislation requires public school districts to offer a base salary of $41,000 to any new teacher. We reached that threshold this past fall.

Q: What is needed to close the financial gap so we stop asking for a referendum?

A: Unless we have a massive reform from the General Assembly on how public school districts are funded, the gap will always be there and we will be forced to continue referendums across the state, including BCS.

Q: What is the average class size?

A: The average class size for Brown County Schools is anywhere from 25 to 30 or more students depending on the grade and enrollment in each grade, school and course.

Q: Where does special education funding go?

A: Special education funding is granted to the district through the education fund based on average daily membership (enrollment) of students with individualized education plans. These dollars are required to be utilized for special education programming only.

Q: What happened to the libraries?

A: With the repurposing of Brown County Intermediate School, the fifth-grade classes were brought back to the elementary buildings. Due to lack of facility space and the need to keep preschool in each elementary school, the libraries moved from a central location in each building rather than being dispersed into classrooms. A district library and media center “hub” has been created to allow for a mobile library to move throughout the district.

Q: How many of our students have sufficient internet?

A: In 2020, a survey went out to all Brown County Schools families. At that time, individual hot spots were delivered to families in need. Since the pandemic, our county resources have grown exponentially in this area. A new survey is in the works to get an updated percentage.

Q: Will early childcare preschool be affordable to families?

A: We will work with area nonprofits and seek private sector support to help those who face any hardships in paying for childcare costs.

Q: What will happen if the referendum fails?

A: If the referendum fails in November, we will be forced to increase class sizes, eliminate teaching positions and make major changes to our academic and student support programs. Our valuable programs that offer career education, summer internships and other educational options will be drastically reduced. Our Career Resource Center, early childhood, business and entrepreneurship, and elementary science programs will face substantial cuts. Finally, programs in our theater, art and music extracurricular activities will be cut. Our athletics program will face an uncertain future.

Q: How many people are using the CRC and what are the certifications coming from the CRC?

A: The high school equivalency has enrolled 13 so far. Please note that June 30 through July 1 is our program year. In addition, 75 students have enrolled this year and met their 12 hours of adult education, which is the minimum amount needed to be considered enrolled. Students have completed 5,188 total hours of adult education instruction so far this year. Another 22 students have received a certification in certified clinical medical assistant, certified nursing assistant and phlebotomy. This does not include master electrician. These numbers are part of the over 13,000 people who have attended the CRC for a class or a provided service in the past five years.