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Voters Defeat School Tax Increases

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By Shelly Kofler, KERA News Director

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Dallas, tX – Voters in two North Texas schools districts have overwhelmingly rejected increasing their tax rate to the highest allowed by law. In Cedar Hill the tax increase failed 74-26 percent. In Duncanville it failed 41-59 percent. KERA's Shelley Kofler talked to Duncanville officials about what happens next and to a key legislator who predicted voter push back.

The Duncanville School District is rightfully proud of its academic achievement. While a large majority of the students are economically disadvantaged, the state rates 11 of Duncanville's 16 schools academically exemplary or recognized. But Superintendent Alfred Ray says a change in state funding has placed excellence in jeopardy. Over the past two years the district has had to cut some $3 million and eliminate 61 positions. This year, employee salaries were frozen.

Alfred Ray: We are one of the lowest funded districts in our area. We receive $200 to $800 less per student to educate our students than some of the districts in our area. We are probably among the one or two lowest districts in our area.

That's why Superintendent Ray says the school district held an election to raise the maintenance and operating tax rate from the current maximum the state allows without voter approval, to the maximum the state allows with voter approval. That additional 13 cent increase in the school tax rate would have added $260 to the annual tax bill of homeowner with a $200,000 house. At a time when the economy is more than shaky, 41 percent of Duncanville voters agreed to the increase. But a whopping 59 percent said no.

State Senator Florence Shapiro, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and sponsor of the tax finance legislation, recently predicted the voter rejection. She says lawmakers didn't expect financially strapped districts to seek the entire 13 cent tax hike all at once. They expected districts to request 3 or 4 cent increases at a time.

Shapiro: 13 cents at one fell swoop is very very significant. Tax rates in most of our districts over the past 20 years haven't gone up more than two pennies, three pennies, five pennies. Rarely do you find a district that increases its taxes 13 cents. That's a lot of money. I'm thinking to myself where is that money going and why do you need so much money all at once? That's what I'm thinking.

The why in Duncanville, according to the superintendent, is to maintain basic operations at a time when the cost of utilities, transportation and just about everything else is going up. Dr. Ray says Duncanville asked voters for the entire allowable tax hike all at once because the alternative was to request smaller tax hikes at least four years in a row.

With the voters nearly shouting their rejection, Ray says the district will consider painful cuts next year that go beyond cosmetic.

Alfred Ray: We would have to consider taking classes away from students. We would have to consider asking students to pay for extra curricular activities like athletics, band and fine arts. We'd have to look at increasing class sizes so we can reduce our staff size.

And this year's 3 percent salary increase for teachers? Now just a distant dream. Without the tax increase there's no extra money for bigger paychecks.