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Palmer schools tax rate

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School superintendent worries about the future

Mark Varsel

Ellis County Press

PALMER – The roll back election to determine the future tax rate to fund Palmer schools is on Oct. 11.

Having been Palmer ISD superintendent for four years, Alan Oakley considers this "the single most important election in the history of Palmer education."

Two years ago the Texas legislature cut school property taxes by a third.

All over Texas school districts are trying to persuade voters to voluntarily adopt higher tax rates.

By law, school districts must pass balanced budgets. This forced the Palmer school board to freeze wages for 2008-2009, making it increasingly difficult to retain existing teachers or to attract new ones.

Districts can adopt a "deficit" budget, but by year-end they must pull from fund balances (the district’s savings account) to balance the budget.

The Texas Education Association recommends PISD maintain a six weeks reserve of operating capital.

Palmer has two weeks. Oakley aptly describes this part of his job as a "balancing act."

In 2006, the Legislature set the maximum school property tax rate at $1 per $100 property valuation.

School boards, such as Palmer, were given the option to raise rates without voter approval to $1.04 per $100 valuation.

Like many school boards, Palmer has already done this. Faced with the prospect of being unable to meet commitments to continue to provide quality education to area children, PISD will ask for voter approval to raise rates to $1.17 per $100 valuation, the maximum allowed by law.

Oakley explains, "Many people think that as property values have risen that the school district has benefited. This is not the case. Money generated from increased appraisal values does not go to schools. The state takes away an equal amount of state funding. The only way for the district to raise additional revenue is for citizens to vote for a tax rate increase. Raising the tax rate to $1.17 will cost the average homeowner abut 36 cents a day, but will generate about $260,000 a year in additional revenue for local schools and the state will then add $525,000 in matching funds. There is no expectation that school funding will be addressed in the 2009 meeting of the legislature. If we fail to raise the local tax rate, we are passing up an opportunity to receive an additional 1.5 million in funding by the state."

Oakley openly admits, "We need this tax increase, one of our schools has more leaks in the roof than I have trash cans to plug them. That roof alone will cost about $170,000 to repair. As Superintendent, I am asking taxpayers of the district to consider investing in the future (children) of the district. Without this increase, the Board and I will have to review programs and we could be forced to make cuts in those programs. For instance, it costs between $2.50 and $2.75 a mile to run a school bus. That means it can cost $1,000 to go to a football game, just for the bus. Funding is the life-blood of this district. Without it we cannot do the things we want to do. We will not be able to operate at the same level we have been." At this statement, Oakley’s business manager, Carla Cochrane readily added, "I agree!"

"To those pundits that say get rid of some of those coaches, they don’t understand that those coaches are teachers", Oakley says. "All of our coaches are full-time teachers. They receive a stipend to coach. It is critical that we stay competitive in employee salaries so we can continue to offer educational opportunities for our students. How do I keep teachers in Palmer? I can’t give raises, but I have to stay competitive."

It is clear that Superintendent Oakley is worried about the future of education in Palmer. He says, "We have needs. I need to get the roofs fixed. We have software we can’t run on our computers because we have old XP machines. The pressure is tremendous on all Superintendents and School Boards across the state to make ends meet. When the legislature reduced school taxes, they did not factor in the increased costs of doing business very year. I predict next year there will be many, many more districts asking for rate increases. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, with fuel costs on the rise and the uncertainty in the economy."

In the closing moments of our interview, Oakley both challenges the citizenry and offers his own personal assurance to the citizens of Palmer saying, "What do the citizens of Palmer want for their school district? I have no problem being accountable as the CEO of the district. The school board has no problem with accountability."

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