Highland School District to hold special election for millage
The Highland School District will hold a special election Sept. 8 for millage retention for the Highland School District.
According to Superintendent Don Sharp, the special election is not to request an increase, but rather to retain what the district currently has.
“This is to ask the voters to allow us to restructure our existing millage which would provide us with some additional funds to make some improvements,” Sharp said.
Unlike the request for retention and expansion during the special election held in 2019, Sharp said the district did not feel like it would be prudent to request an increase in millage with the economic uncertainty generated by the pandemic.
“We’re not asking for an increase, we have five mills of debt service millage and it will expire in a couple of years. We’re just asking the voters to approve retaining the five mills. This will allow us to restructure our debt with lower interest rates, sell some new bonds and that will give us money to improve our existing facilities,” Sharp said.
Sharp explained there is a state minimum for each school district of 25 mills, however; those mills are state and not local. The monies from the 25 mills are taken by the state and redistributed to districts across the state by number of students in the district.
The five mills, which the district currently has, are local mills which allow the school to borrow against and make improvements.
“We have changed direction, listened to the people who responded to the surveys and we’re asking to retain where we are,” Sharp said.
When asked what the needs identified by the district were in regards to the use of the millage, Sharp said first and foremost were repairs to the elementary school.
“The elementary school is the top priority on our list. The roof is no better and is in worse shape than it was a year ago. What we plan to do, if this passes, is to have the roof fixed, put in new windows which will be more energy efficient and we’re also looking at renovating the kitchen and cafeteria,” Sharp said.
He explained over time, plumbing issues had risen in the kitchen of the elementary school cafeteria and with the space available, the cafeteria could become even more multipurpose than it is at this time.
“We’re looking at renovating the cafeteria/auditorium so we can have an auditorium on our campus without having to build a new one. The cafeteria there is the largest facility we have that we could renovate,” Sharp said.
As part of the renovation process, Sharp said it was possible to build a new kitchen addition to the side of the building, change the existing kitchen into a stage area for the auditorium which would also allow for stage entry from the back of the structure. Removing he existing stage would also open up more cafeteria space to accommodate the influx of students.
“Something we see as a priority is better security at the elementary school. Additional security at the entrance,” Sharp said. “In the high school, there are also structures in serious need of repair. The agri-shop is in bad shape structurally. From the outside corners you can see daylight through the corners and it is supported with metal straps. We’ve had roofers who didn’t want to get on the roof because they didn’t feel it was structurally safe.”
Sharp said part of the plan including tearing down the shop, but leaving the existing classrooms. This would allow for construction of a larger and safer shop building which would also create space to expand the career and technical educational programs.
Also on the list of priorities is changes to the middle school parking.
“When we have events we have no place to put the cars and are looking at probably a half million dollar project on the middle school parking. That’s about all we think we can do right now,” Sharp said.
Presently, Sharp said Highland is the third lowest in the state with regards to property taxes.
“We feel like with COVID, the uncertainty there, the uncertainty of the future of the economy, it’s not a time to talk about asking for a raise in taxes. We think if we could ask for them [taxpayers in the district] to help us maintain where we are, we can make some improvements,” Sharp said.
When asked what the potential outcomes could be if the millage did not pass, Sharp said the district would have one final opportunity, but it was not ideal to push the envelope.
“People see the district has 30 mills of property tax, but really, the first 25 of all districts are state tax and we don’t collect that. It is the five mills of local tax we can rely on. We’re not only needing facilities improved, but we are in danger of being the only district in the state without a local property tax and financially that would be devastating,” Sharp said.
Sharp said although there could be one final attempt, if it did not pass, there would be a time the district would be left without millage aside from what they would be given by the state, a portion of redistributed funds.
“There are various fund sources [federal monies] and they are restricted. There are only certain things we can spend the money on. Those funds cannot be used for things like athletics, regular core curriculum instruction, transportation and other things. We do have some positions, some specialist positions in our school we can use those funds to pay. Another source is ESA funds, but they are also restricted. You can pay counselors, testing coordinators, curriculum specialists, dyslexia.. but it is limited.” Sharp said.
Sharp explained the districts operation funding comes from the two sources which are restricted, but local property taxes are what enables the district to pay the majority of staff, bus drivers, custodians and more.
Without the local tax (five mills), the district would have to look at potentially cutting teachers and other staff members while increasing the number of students per classroom.
“...We’d have to really take a hard look, crunch it down and see if we could make enough cuts to maintain for the year we don’t collect in hopes it would pass the following. You cannot survive with no local property tax. That’s why there are no districts with no local property tax,” Sharp said.
When asked what the potential outcome would be if the district were to go for a time with no local property tax, Sharp said it was not ideal, but not uncommon to be labeled as a fiscally distressed district.
“As our balances decline we would be identified as a fiscally distressed district. When a district goes on fiscal distress the state comes in and removes the board and superintendent and installs their own person to run the school. So then there’s not school board meetings anymore the state becomes the board,” Sharp said. “We have districts in the state in that situations and some of it is because of mismanagement, some of it is because they didn’t have adequate funds. Either way, it is not a good situation for the local school district.”
Sharp said presently, if an issue arises, it can generally be remedied immediately. Using a broken water heater as an example Sharp said currently, it could be replaced, however; as a state run facility, the matter would have to be taken before the state before a repair order could be issued.
“Right now, a water heater goes out we can buy one. If a storm comes through and blows off the roof, we can get someone in here to fix that but if that happened everything like that would have to go through the state,” Sharp said. “This isn’t the first thing I bring up when I talk about this because I don’t want it to be construed that I’m trying to spread panic. Highland has had a good school system for along time. There is community pride. I remember growing up in Evening Shade and was envious because Highland had things we did not. There is a lot to be proud of here.”
Sharp said due to COVID, it has been difficult to better get the word out about the plans for the district, and as the pandemic continued, the plans for the district and what would be asked of the people changed.
“We listened. We want to continue to serve and provide the best possible opportunities for our students,” Sharp said.