By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer
ERLANGER - To avoid major cuts in programs and staff, the Erlanger-Elsmere Independent School District has joined a growing number of school systems that have adopted a utility tax.
The 3 percent utility tax approved by the school board last week will take effect in April, said Superintendent Mike Sander. The tax will be on all telephone, cable, electric, water, gas, sewer and cell phone bills, and the amount paid will be determined by use. Without the estimated $2 million a year the tax is expected to generate, the district faces cuts in extracurricular activities and personnel.
"We're trying to bring in enough money to continue the programs that we have without putting an excessive burden on the taxpayer,'' Mr. Sander said.
"In the best-case scenario, the district is facing more than $900,000 in cuts during the 2003-04 fiscal year.''
Erlanger-Elsmere schools are looking at an $847,000 cut in Seeking Educational Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funds, or the money that the state gives districts to educate students. Another $50,000 in categorical funds that pays for things such as textbooks, vocational programs and after-school tutoring also is expected to be cut, Mr. Sander said.
"We didn't get our final numbers for this year's SEEK (allotment) until January, which was halfway through the budget cycle," Mr. Sander said.
The actual cuts the Erlanger-Elsmere district are facing are not yet known, as the state has yet to adopt this fiscal year's budget and Kentucky legislators are exploring various ways to erase a projected deficit.
State-funded agencies, including schools, are under orders to plan for a 5.2 percent cut in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Gov. Paul Patton's administration now expects a shortfall of about $400 million in that period unless the General Assembly raises taxes.
During the last three years, the district of 2,140 students has cut nine teachers and 10 teacher's aides, eliminated a maintenance position, done away with a central office job, cut a Title I aide, eliminated a full-time and part-time speech therapist, and reduced hours for food service employees, Mr. Sander said.
Without revenue from the utility tax, school officials had considered extensive cuts, Mr. Sander said. Those included eliminating all extracurricular activities, reducing maintenance in the system's buildings and facilities, cutting two more central office positions, doing away with a part-time counselor and a maintenance and custodial position, eliminating three library aides, cutting an elementary librarian, cutting 16 teachers and eliminating early bird classes for high school students who want to earn extra credits by attending classes before school.
The utility tax will mean about an $85 a year tax increase for most taxpayers who live within the school district. However, the Erlanger-Elsmere school board has pledged to roll back property taxes by 5 percent this August - to their 1990 rate. That will save taxpayers about $40 a year, Mr. Sander said. The property tax rollback, combined with the new utility tax, mean the average taxpayer in Erlanger and Elsmere will pay about $45 more a year.
Seven Northern Kentucky school districts already have a utility tax, Mr. Sander said. They are Beechwood Independent School District, Boone County Schools, Campbell County Schools, Kenton County Schools, Fort Thomas Independent Schools, Ludlow Independent Schools and Walton-Verona Independent Schools.
Of the 14 Northern Kentucky school districts, Erlanger-Elsmere ranks 10th in property tax rate, Mr. Sander said.
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