Attorney questions school tax proposal

By Oscar E. Jones IV, Attorney at Law • April 5, 2013

A little over two months ago Batesville School District Superintendent Randy Willison proposed to the school board that they seek a millage tax increase designated for school safety. This was in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

At the time of the announcement long-time school board member, Scott Wood, made this statement: “If you’re going to ask for a tax increase, the public would want to know exactly what the money would be spent on.”

Since that announcement, I have been trying to find out the details about how the superintendent intends to spend these additional monies. The Batesville School District has posted some limited information on the school website, but not what you would call specifics or “details.”  According to the website, the 1.25 mileage tax increase will generate $236,000 per year (at current valuations and collection levels) and the sale of new bonded indebtedness will generate a lump sum of $630,000. In other words, part of the income stream generated from the increased tax is used to borrow money by selling bonds. So in effect, not only is the millage boost a permanent tax increase, on both real and personal property, but it is your approval of the Batesville School District borrowing an additional $630,000 to be paid back, with interest to the bond holders over 20 years.

Last week, being unsatisfied with the “details” previously provided, I asked to sit down with Superintendent Willison to discuss the details more specifically. Here’s what I found out:

The amount of the tax increase — 1.25 mills — was arrived at by no particular formula or rationale, but because it would make the total school district millage in Willison’s words “a nice round number.” Batesville School District’s current millage is 38.75, and the 1.25 increase will make it a nice round 40.0 and the total millage in Batesville, Independence County 52.35, one of the highest in Arkansas.

I next asked the superintendent how the figures on the school district’s website regarding how they arrived at the amounts to be spent. His answer was that they are really just numbers that they came up with that have no real estimates or data behind them. In other words, they were just plugged.

I asked Dr. Willison what would be done with the surplus monies resulting from the sale of the bonds (there was obliviously going to be more money than the guesstimated expenditures contained in the website) and Dr. Willison’s answer was “I don’t really know yet, but trust me, I will spend it on school safety and the children.”

I asked for details about the school resource officers and how they would be equipped from a weaponry standpoint and was told the following: “Whatever the sheriff deems to be the appropriate weapon or equipment, I will defer to him. If the sheriff believes that they need to carry automatic or semi-automatic assault weapons then I will accept that. I don’t like it, but I will accept that.”

According to Independence County Sheriff Steve Jeffery, the school resource officers will be provided either a M-16 or a M-14 that he purchased from the U.S. military. They will continue to carry a Glock .40 or .45-caliber pistol. The M-16 will most likely be kept locked in the officer’s car on campus.

When asked if the imposition of this new tax and the expenditure of the hundreds and thousands of dollars on the school buildings would make the campuses safer, the superintendent admitted there was no amount of money or fortification that would make the facilities completely safe. “These improvements simply might be a deterrent to a bad guy or we might be able to lessen the number of causalities he can inflict before we can get to him,” according to Willison.

After a one hour and 15 minute conversation, I left the meeting knowing only two things for sure. There is no definitive plan which contains any detail about how the money will be spent, and Dr. Randy Willison believes that the taxpayers should simply approve this tax increase and trust him to spend it wisely.

I have no doubt that the school board and the superintendent are trying to provide for the safety of our students. However, simply throwing money at the issue without a detailed plan is bad policy and will not add significantly to the safety of our children.

The election is next Tuesday, April 9, and early voting is in progress now.