By TEDDYE SNELL
TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Shannon Goodsell announced plans to present a city sales tax/school bond issue to voters in the spring of next year.
Goodsell cited myriad needs, including new buses, and cafeteria improvements at both Tahlequah High School and Greenwood Elementary school, as the reason for the proposal.
In light of the announcement, the Daily Press posted a poll on its Web site asking readers asking if they would support a both a bond issue and a city sales tax, just a bond, just a tax, or neither.
Of 155 respondents, the majority – 40 percent – indicated they would favor both a sales tax and a bond issue, followed by 36.13 percent who were opposed to both. Sixteen percent said they would oppose a city sales tax, but would support a bond issue, and 4.5 percent said they would support a tax, but not a bond issue.
According to Goodsell, the proposed city sales tax would not increase residents’ taxes, but would merely continue a half-penny sales tax that’s due to expire soon, likewise the bond.
The proposed tax would cap out at $8 million, and would be split between the city and the schools, 60 percent to 40 percent.
“In other words, the bond issue would provide $5,235,000, and the schools would receive $3.2 million of the tax revenue, for a total of $8.4 million,” said Goodsell. “The city would garner $4.8 million from the tax.”
Ward 1 City Councilor Jason Nichols confirmed Goodsell’s explanation.
“The city sales tax would remain at its current level,” said Nichols. “And it’s incredibly important for people to know the city relies heavily on tax revenues for improvements.”
Nichols said the city was mulling making the tax permanent, and after the school had received its allotted $3.2 million, 100 percent would then go to the city for infrastructure improvements, including expanding and improving roads and parks, and downtown beautification.”
Nichols supports the measure, but was hesitant at first.
“We’ve had on-going negotiations on what the split would be,” he said. “At first I opposed it, but am warming to the idea.”
Dr. John Yeutter, associate professor of accounting at Northeastern State University, is concerned some schools within the city limits may be left out of funding considerations.
“One major concern that I have abut this proposed sales tax is that there are three school districts, and not only one, within the city of Tahlequah,” said Yeutter. “There is a current half-penny sales tax enacted several years ago to be ‘used solely for the purposes of the acquisition, construction, furnishing, equipping, and financing of education facilities attended by students residing within the corporate limits of the city of Tahlequah.’ This half-penny sales tax totals about $1.3 million per year. To be fair, the sales tax from Tahlequah citizens who live in Grand View or Briggs school districts should go to those schools, and the city should properly apportion those funds among these three districts. As far as I can tell, all of the funds collected by [the current] tax are being sent to the Tahlequah Public School system, and none to the Grand View or Briggs school districts.”
According to Goodsell, should the new tax proposal pass, both Grand View and Briggs Schools will share $200,000 of the $3.2 million, as both schools have students enrolled who live within the city limits. The amount was determined by the number of students each school has enrolled who live within Tahlequah City limits.
Goodsell enlisted a committee of approximately 30 to 40 school patrons, administrators and teachers to help determine the immediate needs for the district.
“And the list is really open-ended,” he said. “We want as much input as possible. If you want to sign up to be part of the committee, give me a call, we’d be happy to have you.”
He indicated the committee would meet again during the first two weeks in December.
As it stands now, the committee identified a number of areas needing attention, including transportation and buses.
“The number-one priority for the bond money is busing and transportation,” said Goodsell. “We would allocate $1,280,000 of the $5.2 million of the bond to purchase new route buses, activity buses and handicap transportation.”
Goodsell said he’d heard some grumbling about the need for activity buses, but that the district desperately needs them.
“For instance, in 2007-’08, activity trips alone, and that doesn’t include the national trips requiring charters or any single athletic team from the seventh grade up, the district used 306 regular route buses and 161 other vehicles to transport students,” said Goodsell. “Now, think about all the of football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and softball games. The tennis matches, the track meets. That’s a lot of transportation need. One-third of our fuel costs is expended in activities.”
Goodsell said the district recently spent $605 sending the football team, cheerleaders, pom squad, and a pared-down pep band to the game at East Central, which required eight buses and two Suburban.
“It was East Central’s Senior Night, so our full band didn’t even get to play, which meant we didn’t send a bus of equipment that normally would have had to travel,” said Goodsell. “If we had activity buses, we could completely eliminate the need for an equipment bus, as everything fits in the belly of the bus that transports the students. We can essentially cut costs in half.”
Tahlequah School Board member Tony Boyle said it would ultimately be up to the public to decide whether to pass one, both or neither of the measures.
“We’ve beat this thing to death,” said Boyle. “The committee, which is made up of patrons, not the school board, are the ones who came up with a list of needs. It’s our job to let the people decide to support it.”
Of the list of needs, Boyle believes all are important.
“The buses have high mileage and are worn out,” he said. “The cafeteria at Greenwood was built to serve 300 kids, and they’re serving 600, and the cafeteria at the high school is completely inadequate.”
Boyle pointed out the Legislature had no plans to increase school funding, and the money is going to have to come from somewhere.
“Somehow, we’re going to have to take up the slack, or we’re not going to be able to move forward to educate the children,” said Boyle.
TPS Board Member Luke Foster is in favor of both measures.
“I have been aware of this issue for some time and have known that Tahlequah would be given an opportunity to approve a new bond issue for the public schools in April of next year,” said Foster. “The recent reduction in state support for our schools coupled with the national economic downturn has heightened my awareness of the importance of this bond as well as the sales tax.”
Foster views this opportunity in April and May as a turning point for the community.
“Many good things are happening in the district right now, and I believe that if we are to continue to improve and become a model school district, we are going to need funding,” he said. “Both the bond and the tax will provide the funding necessary to continue this good work. If either fails, we face a standstill, which leads almost immediately to a decline.”
Foster hopes voters will view both opportunities as an investment in both the schools and the community.
“A healthy school district encourages a healthy community and vice versa,” he said. “How important it is, especially in this current time, for citizens in this community to invest in something that has lasting value. There is so much to gain if we succeed, but there is also so much to lose if we fail. Let’s make the right choice, even if it isn’t easy to do.”