Thursday, September 30, 2004

Southgate residents weigh eliminating their school

By William Croyle
Enquirer staff writer

SOUTHGATE - The fate of this small town's 102-year-old, one-school district might end up in the hands of voters as soon as December.

Tax rates (per $1,000 of assessed value) for the Southgate Independent School District and its three contiguous school districts
Campbell County: $5.09*
Southgate: $7.38
Fort Thomas: $8.34 *
Newport: $8.81
*Also generate revenue from a utility tax.
Some residents are questioning a decision earlier this month by the school board to levy a 41 percent increase on property taxes - and they're taking the issue into their own hands.

Seven residents have gone door-to-door, trying to gather enough signatures to recall the tax the board passed Sept. 9 and put the tax question on a special election ballot.

It appears that will happen.

They need 135 signatures - or 10 percent of registered Southgate voters who voted in the 2000 presidential election. Bob Speier, one of the petitioners, said they have collected about 360 so far.

"I thought they rammed this down our throat," said Speier, 67, a Southgate resident for 34 years. "Forty percent is just too much. A lot of people here are on a fixed income and can't afford that."

The school board raised the rate from $5.22 to $7.38 per $1,000 - an additional $216 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Superintendent Curtis Hall said the $150,000 in additional revenue the tax would generate is needed to stay in business.

"If it comes to a vote, and they vote against it, we will have to close and merge with another district."

The school board will have a public question-and-answer session on the issue at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Southgate serves preschool through eighth grade. It's the second-smallest district in the state, with 166 students - down from more than 200 in 1997.

Of the 176 districts, Southgate teacher salaries rank 175th. That's where Hall said the bulk of the additional revenue would go, along with upgrades in technology.

Hall said the district receives $2,521 a student in state funding, the same it received in 1991-92.

School board chairman Robert Lape said that is the source of the district's financial crisis.

"The state and funding formula have pretty much tried to force us out of business," Lape said. "We cannot continue to provide the educational services we're providing without the additional revenue."

Speier said the district should have added a utility tax rather than increase property taxes so it could also generate revenue from renters. "And they should have done this three or four years ago."

Hall said a utility tax would not be enough. He said the district has focused on cutting costs in recent years rather than seeking tax increases and has found ways to save $92,000 annually.

"Going to the taxpayers is our last resort."

After the signatures are turned in to the county clerk, the school board and county will set a special election date. Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass said mid-December would be the earliest it could occur.

If the levy fails, the Southgate school board can negotiate a merger with any of the three contiguous districts: Campbell County, Fort Thomas or Newport.

Campbell County residents pay a school tax rate of $5.09 per $1,000 but also pay a utility tax. Fort Thomas residents pay $8.34 per $1,000 along with a utility tax. Newport pays $8.81. That means a merger with Fort Thomas or Newport - the two districts where most of last year's eighth-grade Southgate students attend high school this year - would bring higher taxes than the new rate set by Southgate.

"Everybody I've talked to is willing to take that chance," said Speier, who's not convinced Southgate would have to close if the tax fails. "But I don't think merging with any of those districts would be bad."

Jim Specht hopes it doesn't come to that. He attended Southgate in the 1960s and has a child there today.

"I like the idea that kids can walk to school, we can vote our neighbors on to the school board, and we have more control over the educational process," Specht said. "If the tax is what it's going to take to keep our independent school district, then I'm for it."


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