When taxes are higher than school performance, is it time to consolidate?

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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This story originally appeared in the March 17 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.

Correction: An image that appeared in the March 17 edition incorrectly identified the salary of Campbell County Schools superintendent as $260,000 annually. The graphic should have reflected a $165,000 salary. LINK nky regrets the error.

Fewer than five miles separate Campbell County’s independent schools, but some are outshining others in academic performance despite lower tax rates and it’s drawing calls for consolidation from residents. 

Longtime Southgate resident, Jim Ling, has lived in the city for roughly 33 years. He said if a district had a high-performance rating, it might make sense to remain independent, but he doesn’t think Southgate fits that mold.

“Some neighborhoods would like to remain independent, have an identity and more choice in their schools,” Ling said. “If Southgate were a strong school system, which it hasn’t been for many years, that would be a consideration. But a better way to approach it may be to use the resources of a larger and better school system, being one of our neighbors.”

Southgate Independent Schools has had a mobile classroom on its campus for nearly 20 years and some of its buildings are more than 100 years old. 

The district established a recallable nickel tax equivalent to $57 for every $100,000 in property value. That money can only be used for facility improvements, which the state matches. It’s an additional tax on top of the school’s 102.5 cent tax rate – the second-highest in the county. The new tax increases the district’s bonding capacity from $800,000 to $2.1 million.

Southgate City Council Member Joe Anderson said his problem with the nickel tax is that it expands the school but does little to address performance issues. 

“It’s not going towards the education of the students. It’s going towards making the school bigger, modifying, making the gym bigger,” he said. 

Campbell County has five independent school districts – some less than a mile apart. Using Kentucky’s State Report Card, data shows that higher tax rates have little to do with higher performance. While Southgate Independent schools has the second-highest tax rate in the county, the district’s accountability score earned it the second-lowest grade the state can assign. 

By comparison, Fort Thomas Independent Schools earned the highest rating possible and charges 95.8 cents per $100. Campbell County Schools earned the second-highest possible score for its elementary and high school, and its falls much lower at 64.5 cents.

The Southgate Independent School Board lowered the school tax rate from the 2021-2022 rate of 118.9 to 102.5 for 2023-2024. However, this reduced rate does not include the recallable nickel. The school tax rate is based on “real property,” like a home assessment. With a total of 211 students in its K-8 schools it’s one of the smallest districts in the state and it’s landlocked, meaning any desire for more funding has to come from a tax increase. 

Duty said at a November city council meeting that they would like to use the nickel tax funds to expand the school and remove the mobile classroom, add an elevator or lift to make the auditorium more accessible, and renovate the school’s restrooms, cafeteria and gym.

Local parent Brandon Miller has lived in the city for most of his life. A former Southgate student himself, two of his four children are now enrolled in kindergarten and fourth grade there.

“It’s a small school with big pride,” Miller told LINK nky.

He said he feels the school’s small size allows it to better provide for its students. He said his child in fourth grade received tutoring through the school that her teacher recommended, and Duty always emphasizes reading in Southgate.

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Duty told LINK nky that the school recently hired a Response to Intervention (RTI) teacher for reading, too.

During the pandemic, when kids were doing virtual learning, Miller said the school would send boxes of supplies, including shoes, clothes, and two to three meals. A father of six, that resonated with him and he has never considered sending his kids elsewhere.

Despite investments, Anderson pointed out that Southgate’s reading proficiency level is low.

During the Nov. 16 council meeting, Duty told the council that he didn’t see their scores as bad.

“When we talk about 50 some-odd of our kids being proficient in reading, I don’t see that as being a bad thing,” Duty said at the November council meeting.

According to the state report card, Southgate’s reading proficiency rate aligns with the state average at the elementary level at 28% proficiency. Southgate’s middle schoolers are struggling with reading concepts, though. State report cards show 19% of middle school students were proficient in reading, nearly 10% below the state’s average. 

“You have 211 students, so you are absolutely fine that 105 students can’t read. You’re happy with that?” Anderson said. “It just doesn’t sit right with me.”

Graphic by LINK nky

Southgate resident Destiny Fenner sends her child to second grade at Southgate Independent. She also told LINK nky she has never considered sending them to a different school.

“I like the way that Southgate is a smaller school, and our child can move up grades with the same people and have that familiarity,” Fenner said.

Miller said things he doesn’t like about the school are “far and few between,” and Fenner said the same. 

Anderson said merging with Campbell County School District to create a north and south school in the county could fix the issues in Southgate, and he’s not the only person with that idea. Southgate residents Steve Bridewell and Ling have both considered it.

Bridewell moved to Southgate in 1994. Both residents were around in 2004 when the school board proposed a 41% tax increase to save the school from closing due to the enrollment dropping to 166 students — and both residents were against the tax increase then.

This time around, they both think consolidation is the answer. 

“You know, realistically, a merger doesn’t have to mean closing,” Ling said. “They might be able to incorporate the Southgate School as a northern Campbell school and bring the resources of a much larger district to bear in Southgate.”

Bridewell also thinks the school doesn’t necessarily need to shut down.

“I’m not saying the school should go, but I think there should be some talks with existing school boards, you know? Do we want to look for other districts to maybe try and merge with?” Bridewell said. “Do we want to talk about that rather than keep putting that on the back of the citizens?”

Former Southgate Council member of 20 years Chris Robisch said he favored the 2004 tax increase but is not supporting the nickel tax. Robisch noted that in 2004, the council was told the tax increase would be temporary, but it wasn’t. He added that then, the school was performing well.

Robisch said because the school is landlocked, he believes it would be better to build a new school on the northern end of the county that would be part of the Campbell County School District, as Southgate’s buildings are too old and too costly to maintain or renovate. 

He also suggested the school could be torn down and replaced with a different community amenity. 

However, Campbell County Schools Superintendent Shelli Wilson said another high school isn’t part of the district’s facility plans. 

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Both Robisch and Anderson said they have residents who contact them during tax season to complain about the high local rates, and they both said they tell them to look at the school’s taxes.

“It costs more than double my (property) tax bill to run the school,” Bridewell said. “It’s like, well shoot, we could probably have a little more pavement going on; some of the roads cleaned up a little bit.”

Bridewell said that every time he gets his tax bill, he thinks about moving, but he said he and his wife love where they live.

Robisch said he tells people the only way to lower the tax is by attending school board meetings and voicing their concerns. He also said they could run for the board of education and vote to close the school.

That’s what Silver Grove Independent School District in Campbell County did. 

In February 2019, Silver Grove Independent School District consolidated with Campbell County School District in a 4-1 vote by the school board. The school had been in operation for 108 years.

Four of the five Silver Grove School Board members were elected over the consolidation issue. The four school board members who voted for consolidation were elected in November 2018, while the lone school board member to vote against consolidation, Melanie Pelle, served on the school board for 24 years prior. 

Robisch said he knows a few people in Southgate who have contacted Silver Grove residents to see what they needed to do to get rid of the school district.

Local business owner and Silver Grove City Councilmember Joe Pelle told LINK nky in March last year that one of the reasons why the school closed was due to low enrollment. At the time of the school’s closure, Silver Grove had 211 K-12 students – identical to Southgate’s current K-8 enrollment. 

The school also struggled with performance. In 2018, Silver Grove ranked second to last in Kentucky for average ACT scores.

Pelle said that students who live in Silver Grove now have access to a top 20 school district in the state. The merger also benefited homeowners in the city, as a portion of their tax bill no longer goes toward funding the school district.

Longtime Silver Grove Mayor Neal Bedel is a Silver Grove High School graduate.

“It’s been a big savings as far as the taxes paid for the school district go,” Bedel told LINK nky last year. “You know, it was almost basically cut in half between Silver Grove taxes and Campbell County school taxes. It was significant.”

While in operation, Silver Grove had one of the highest school tax rates in Kentucky and some of the lowest test scores.

In neighboring Kenton County, a discussion began last month among the Covington Independent School Board of Education about possibly consolidating one of its five elementary schools.

Students at 9th District would be redistributed primarily between Latonia and Glenn O. Swing elementary schools, and the district said it would save them almost $1 million in 2024.

At the first meeting held on the topic on Feb. 9, concerned residents spoke out, saying that the consolidation would lead to larger class sizes and less one-on-one attention for students.

If the schools were consolidated, the district said class sizes wouldn’t exceed the current 24:1 student-teacher ratios, and no teachers would lose their jobs. Ken Kippenbrock, the district’s executive director of Human Resources and Operations, said the money freed up from the closure would make it easier to provide teachers and other staff with raises and increased benefits.

At their board of education meeting on Feb. 24, the district decided to table the conversation until finalizing its master facilities plan. 

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“Realistically, I’d want to follow in the path of Silver Grove and merge,” Ling said. “At the time of that last tax fight (in 2004), the city of Fort Thomas was struggling to keep three schools open — they didn’t have enough students nor the finances to do that. They put together a really nice program where they convinced the residents to support a levy. Then their schools, if you go through and look at the improvements made, are remarkable — five blue schools, which Southgate is not and has never been.”

Ling said he sent his kids to Highlands High School in Fort Thomas. While it’s a common alternative for Southgate parents unhappy with their local schools, getting accepted is becoming challenging and expensive. The tuition fee for the 2022-2023 school year is $2,850 for K-12 Kentucky resident students.

Southgate has another K-8 school in the city, St. Therese Catholic School, which is a Blue Ribbon School. Both Ling and Bridewell sent their kids to St. Therese instead of the public school system. 

If Southgate were to merge with another district, Miller said he would be curious about what would happen to the Southgate tax rates and if the school tax would be set by the Campbell County School Board, as with what happened in Silver Grove.  

He also questioned some logistics, such as bus routes and snow days, if the county took over.

Miller said that as long as he has lived in Southgate for roughly 33 years, the taxes have always been high. He said some residents seem mad about the new nickel tax because it was “slipped in.”

“I just felt like that was kind of snuck through,” Bridewell said. “They can always say, ‘We dotted every I and crossed every T. We did the legal notice.’ How hard is it to try to get it out for the public?”

Ling agreed.

“It’s just not a nice situation to present a recallable nickel tax when there is no ability for residents to recall it,” Ling said.

Though residents felt like by the time they found out about the tax, they did not have time to speak out against it; the school did publish a legal notice in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Aug. 26, 2022, prior to the Sept. 8, 2022, tax hearing. 

Miller said he would do anything for his kids, and the school needs upgrades.

“If possible, I think more classrooms and the mobile home needs removed,” Miller said. “It has been there since around 2004 to 2005.” 

Fenner said she doesn’t want her taxes to go up and thinks she is paying “plenty” as is.

Unlike federal tax dollars, Duty said that local tax money goes to the school for use right away.

“That is (the recallable nickel) something that you can see within a year,” Duty said. “I think that’s what people have to understand that taking these local tax dollars, you’ll see the benefit right away.”

When comparing Northern Kentucky school districts to Cincinnati, the way of doing things is very different.

Cincinnati Public Schools has a student population of roughly 36,000 and serves a population of about 300,000 people.

That district utilizes one superintendent, who is paid $260,000 annually. The combined salary of Campbell County’s independent school districts is just over $800,000.

Anderson questioned the idea of spending money on facility upgrades when a school performs poorly.

“When you’re spending good money on a bad product, and kids are not getting the education that they need,” Anderson said. “It just sits wrong with everybody.”

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