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Sales tax increase for schools voted down

Hopes for additional education dollars were dashed last week with the failure of the quarter-cent sales tax increase.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge believes a lack of communication and an anti-tax attitude among voters are the primary reasons the increase was not supported.
“We didn’t communicate to voters the reasons it was necessary and the benefits to the school system,” he said.
In addition, Eldridge said many voters don’t feel the taxes they are paying are being used efficiently and effectively, and they don’t want to pay more.
“If we could have justified the need on this point, I think voters could have been convinced by the benefit,” he said.
Director of Schools Ron Dykes said the small turnout of voters was also a factor. “When you have only 15 percent taking advantage of what I consider a constitutional right and civic responsibility, it’s disheartening,” he said.
Event with 15 percent of voters making the decision for everyone, Dykes said it’s unreasonable for the majority to pass a tax on themselves unless they think some kind of tax is inevitable. In that case, a sales tax increase would be preferable since 40 percent is paid by people outside of Washington County.
“I think it’s obvious all Washington County agencies can’t continue to provide the same service on flat revenue,” he said. “New revenue is needed to maintain service even at the status quo.”
A revised plan to provide support through additional pennies in the tax levy allocation was expected to be voted on during Aug. 7 meeting of the Budget Committee.
“This doesn’t fix (the problem) at all,” Eldridge said, “it’s a band-aid to get the school system in good shape for this year.”
The goals during the coming year, according to Eldridge, are to meet the mandates, avoid cutting any programs, and buy time to deal with the issues related to funding.
“I’m concerned people in Washington County have never been fully informed about what it takes to fund the county school system,” he said. “It’s a whole lot more serious issue than most people realize.”
According to Eldridge, the next significant event in the battle for more dollars is a Sept. 17 meeting in Nashville hosted by the lieutenant governor. Leaders from Washington, Sullivan, Blount and Rutherford counties will meet to discuss a specific remedy for the issues these counties are dealing with in trying to fund two school systems.
“The most feasible remedy would involve a supplemental appropriation to the effected counties to offset the impact of the funding disparity the formula has created,” Eldridge told members of the Oversight and Steering Committee during their July 31 meeting.
“This will require new money, allocating current dollars won’t work,” he said. “If you try to redo the BEP formula, it will take something away from the cities.”
Eldridge said the inequity in the whole school funding issue comes from the county having to provide an equal amount to the city schools, but the same requirement does not apply to the city.
Shifting enrollments in the two systems will only make the situation worse. “In the next five to 10 years, there will be the same number of students in both systems, but only the county is sharing revenue,” he said.
The problem is not a secret in Nashville, Eldridge says, but making the needed changes would be difficult politically, particularly when so few counties are impacted. “We have to pursue this with everything we’ve got,” he said.