PRINCETON — With $12.9 million on the line for Mercer County Schools for the next fiscal year, early voting for the excess school levy has been drawing attention, including some opposition.
But so far that has not had a significant impact on early voting.
“It’s been moderate,” county Registrar Verlin Moye said of the voter turnout. “At the end of day five we had 1,091 votes.”
Six more days are left for early voting before the Nov. 2 special election.
The excess levy rate was enacted in 2015 and is good for five years, so the current one will expire at the end of this fiscal year, June 30, 2020.
Rates will not change, Moye said, just continue what is already in place, which brings in almost $13 million for the school system.
Of the total property tax ticket, schools routinely receive 34 percent, he added, but the excess levy has been in place for decades to bolster that.
“The excess levy is 40 percent (of the property taxes that was set in 2015),” he said, bringing the total percentage for schools to about 74 percent.
Of the remaining money, the county receives 24 percent and the state about 1 percent.
Voters will decide whether to maintain that levy.
Schools Superintendent Deborah Akers recently explained to the county commission that the levy does not raise rates and the money is crucial for school system supplemental salaries for teachers, staff and service personnel, among many other necessities.
Akers said the amount of money the school system receives from the state is set by state statue and “stagnant.” If the excess levy fails, there will be no extra money to make up for it. That could mean job losses, as well as cutbacks in many areas, from extracurricular activities to buses to school security.
Commissioner Greg Puckett said he fully supports the school system, but he has a “difficult time supporting a levy that is really geared toward educating kids that are not here anymore. Once they graduate, they exit the county. We’ve got a mass exodus. If you look at the census of 2010, look at where we’ll be in 2020, we’re 5,000 people less.”
Commissioner Gene Buckner also said the county’s population has decreased, and that from what people in the school system have told him, the number of teachers, and using substitutes “probably saves you money.”
“I’ve been in business 45 years, I can’t for the life of me see why you need an increase when everything else in your system has decreased,” he said.
But Akers said state funding depends on student population. Less state money is allocated when there are fewer students, and the cost of education “is not stagnant.” The school system often has to hire teachers and aides for special needs students, and state funding does not cover that expense. The cost of keeping technology up to date keep increasing, too.
“There is no county in the state that can operate on the number of service personnel provided by the state funding formula,” Akers said. “You can look at student statistics across the state and you can see that every county has more service personnel than the state pays for. Again, we are able to use those levy dollars to pay for that additional staff.”
Akers also reminded the commissioners that if the excess levy fails, it would not increase the money in county coffers. “If the levy fails, we get less and you get nothing,” she said.
However, many people in the school system would lose their jobs, she added.
“We would have to pass out notices to many, many people that they would not have a job, and maybe not get them back because they would find jobs elsewhere,” she said, adding later, “We are good stewards of the money. We have spent money exactly as our last levy called for, and our audits show that.”
Both Puckett and Buckner said they do not oppose the levy and will vote for it. But they also expressed concern that any funding (rollovers) left over from the excess levy from year to year is staying in the school system and not going into county coffers.
Akers said the school system was bound to spend the dollars as stated in the levy. Money that isn’t spent one year must be spent for school levy purposes the next year.
Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com