School board approves operating referendum question on ballot this fall

It is official: Brown County Schools will ask voters this fall to vote either for or against a property tax increase to support the Career Resource Center, early childhood education, teacher salaries and cover unexpected operational expenses.

The Brown County School Board of Trustees met in a special meeting last week to vote on adopting a resolution that would place an operating referendum on the ballot this November.

On Nov. 8, Brown County voters will be able to vote yes or no to adding 12 cents per $100 of assessed value to the property tax rate. This is an increase over the current operating referendum that is in place, which was approved by voters at 8 cents per $100 of assessed value in 2016.

Nine cents of the proposed operating referendum — estimated to bring in $1.4 million a year — would go to “retaining and attracting teachers and staff through salaries, benefits and programs,” according to a proposed revenue spending plan.

Another penny — which is estimated to bring in $157,709 annually — would go to the school district’s Birth to Five Coalition, which works to provide early education opportunities for the youngest county residents.

Brown County Schools will open its fourth preschool program for 3 to 5 year olds in Nashville when the Early Education Center opens at the Educational Service Center this upcoming school year. The goal is to eventually expand early childhood education in Nashville to care for children from birth to 5 years old. A 2-year-old classroom is expected to open and serve 10 students in January.

The CRC is also set to receive a penny from the referendum. The CRC provides adult education including a master electrician training and high school equivalency programs. Career counseling, resume help, small business counseling and other services are also available there.

The CRC has received local property tax money ever since a referendum passed in 2010, at 1 cent per $100 of AV. It received a penny from the 8 cent referendum approved in 2016.

The third penny would go to cover “unforeseen” operations fund expenditures, Superintendent Emily Tracy said.

The school district’s operations fund 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. Some unforeseen expenses could be hiring bus more bus drivers or custodians. It could also cover paying administrative staff who do not work directly in the classrooms.

The referendum money, which also comes from property taxes, has its own fund. 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.

The revenue spending plan and the language of the referendum question will have to be approved by the Department of Local Government Finance.

If approved, the referendum would last from 2023 to 2030. According to the revenue spending plan, the estimated annual revenue from the referendum levy would be $1,892,512. According to the proposed referendum ballot question, the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a home would increase by 33.9% and by 20.9% for business properties.

According to a presentation from the school district’s financial advisor Baker Tilly, under a rate of 12 cents per $100 of assessed value a property taxpayer would pay an extra $117.36 per year — or $9.78 per month — 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.

Baker Tilly presented projections on how different referendum rates would impact property taxes for homeowners during three community meetings held in May and June for people to learn more about the proposed operating referendum and why it is needed. Over the three meetings, 80 residents attended to ask questions including those who did not have children in Brown County Schools, Tracy said at the July 14 meeting.

Community members also submitted several ideas during those meetings regarding the future of the school district, she continued.

Identifying needs

During those community meetings, Tracy explained the need behind asking voters to approve another operating referendum with the biggest factors identified as declining student enrollment and state funding. Over the last five years, the school district reported losing under $1 million in state funding.

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.

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.

With the continued decline in state funding and if the current operating referendum goes away and another one is not approved, Tracy said that by 2025 the school district will be operating at a deficit.

“Ultimately they will be used to retain and recruit outstanding teachers and staff. Again, continuing to keep our class sizes at a manageable level, to support and provide social-emotional health, fund our Career Resource Center and operate our community Early Education Center,” Tracy said of the funding from the proposed operating referendum.

Tracy continued that the school district has worked “extremely hard” to save and be good stewards of the current referendum funding, including cutting $4 million from its budget. Those cuts included 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.

“We cannot remain competitive and innovative without the upcoming referendum and the funding,” Tracy said at the meeting last week.

Public comments were accepted before the school board voted on the resolution that would place the referendum on the ballot, but only one member of the public attended and they did not share comments with the board.

The resolution was approved by the school board unanimously. Copies of the referendum tax levy resolution and the proposed revenue spending plan will be available on the school district’s website at Hard copies are also available at the district’s central office located at 357 E. Main St.

Baker Tilly is working with the school district to create a tax calculator that will be available on the district’s website that residents can use to put in their specific information and see how the property tax rate increase will affect their taxes. The school district’s website will soon have a specific page dedicated to the referendum.

A document of frequently asked questions will also be available on the school district’s website by the end of this week.

Once DLGF approves the referendum language on the ballot, Tracy will form a political action committee to educate and campaign in the community. Money from the school district’s budget cannot be used for referendum campaigning, requiring donations be raised by the PAC to support those efforts.