Voters to get school tax in St. Helena
By Heidi R. Kinchen
Florida Parishes bureau
January 11, 2013
St. Helena Parish school officials are asking, for the fourth time in five years, for voters to approve a new tax package to renovate school facilities and increase teacher pay.
Voters have rejected the past three attempts.
In May 2010, the School Board sought a 20-year, 55-mill property tax to raise $2.1 million annually for teacher and employee salaries. The measure failed by 598 votes, with 1,613 against and 1,015 in favor.
In July 2008, voters rejected a 25-year, 37-mill property tax backing a $20.4 million bond issue to build a school complex for prekindergarten through 12th grade, with 1,536 against and 1,152 in favor.
And in October 2007, voters defeated a 25-year, 40-mill proposition for the same project, 2,290 against to 2,106 in favor.
But school officials say things are different this time.
The district managed to achieve the most-improved test scores in the state in 2011-12, while cutting its $1.4 million deficit by $1 million.
Superintendent Kelli Joseph, who joined the district just over a year ago, reorganized the central office, cut her own pay by 3 percent and struck a bargain with the teachers union for two unpaid employee days and reduced district contributions to employee health insurance in 2012-13.
School officials have secured grants for more classroom resources, and educators have focused on professional development and fostering a productive school culture.
The administration hopes these efforts will restore public confidence and increase community involvement — and investment — in the schools.
Whether that will translate into the passage of a 10-year, 16.4-mill tax for employee raises and a 40-year, 9.4-mill tax for school renovations remains to be seen.
After Joseph highlighted these achievements at an Aug. 16 board meeting, resident Joshua Conleay noted that he and his neighbors think school officials are doing a great job, “but we’re a hard sell.”
Conleay chaired the board-appointed Committee for the Advancement of St. Helena Schools, which issued a report in January 2011 calling the school system “a fatted calf” that had “proved to be wasteful, not planning for tomorrow, and counting on a handout that may never come.”
That kind of distrust has made it “hard to hear good news,” Conleay said after the meeting.
Board member Alton Travis told residents at the meeting that the former administration had given him plenty of ammunition to vote against prior tax proposals.
“That same information is not here this time,” Travis said. “This bunch of people has tried to do the right thing, and I have nothing negative to say about them.”
Even so, Travis cast the lone vote against placing the current proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot, saying there are too many uncertainties about the economy to support a tax at this time.
The School Board’s decision to pursue the least-expensive tax package of the six it considered was a wise choice, resident Richard Sandberg said in an interview after the meeting.
The important thing now is for residents to have an open dialogue about the proposal, he said.
“Unless an honest discussion takes place, without the fear of repercussions either politically or socially, we’re not going to be able to come together as a community to help make our schools, and ultimately our community, a better place,” he said.
Heidi Kinchen is a reporter in The Advocate’s Florida Parishes bureau. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.