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Ky. Supreme Court strikes down challenge to JCPS property tax hike

Liz Schlemmer

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a petition to recall a Jefferson County Public Schools tax increase is null and void.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said in a statement the decision will facilitate more investments and is a “win for the children of Jefferson County.”

Members of the Louisville Tea Party tried to recall the 9.5% property tax increase in 2020 with a ballot question. The Jefferson County Board of Education passed the tax increase in May 2020. It amounts to an additional 7 cents per $100 of assessed value. That means an owner of a $200,000 home would see their bill rise by $140.

Initially, the Jefferson County Clerk’s office certified there were enough signatures from opponents to put a recall question on the ballot in the 2020 General Election.

But weeks before the election, a judge ruled the opponents’ online petition was invalid because organizers altered voter information. The judge also found the county clerk’s office certified hundreds of duplicate signatures. The duplicate signatures, and erroneous and altered entries were uncovered by a consultant hired by the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the teachers’ union.

Tax opponents then appealed to the state’s highest court. But in Thursday's ruling, all seven justices sided with JCPS and the teachers’ union, which are in favor of the increase.

Justices said the lack of security measures on the electronic recall petition coupled with the alterations made by members of the committee invalidated the petition.

“In cases such as this, the public’s right to vote on a tax recall is rendered null by the inadequacy of the recall petition occasioned by the alterations and lack of required information,” justices wrote in their decision.

“We hold the total absence of any security measures to ensure an electronic signature was in fact made by the purported signatory negates the petition.”

The district levied and collected the tax increase in question over the last two years, but held part of the revenues in escrow while awaiting a final decision from the courts. Thursday’s ruling means JCPS can move $74.5 million out of escrow and begin spending it.

“The impact that we can have on our kids is monumental as a result of this,” Pollio said during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

The superintendent said he plans to spend the funds on high-poverty schools, extending learning time and improving facilities. The district has been using federal pandemic relief dollars for many of these initiatives since 2020. Pollio said revenue from the tax increase will become crucial for continuing those efforts once the federal funds expire in 2024.

The court’s decision means the district’s bonding capacity nearly doubled overnight, from $265 million to $525 million. That means JCPS will be able to borrow twice as much to spend on facilities. Pollio said that will allow the district to move forward with long-overdue upgrades to school buildings.

While the decision is a win for the district, JCPS is likely to face more tax-recall petitions in the future if it wants to raise taxes again.

In 2021, the GOP-led General Assembly drastically reduced the number of signatures needed to get a tax-recall question on the ballot. Previously, tax opponents had to collect a number of signatures equal to 10% of eligible voters in a district. For JCPS, that was around 35,500 signatures. The new law requires just 5,000 signatures for JCPS.

“The Petition Committee members are very disappointed with the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision upholding the JCPS tax hike,” Louisville Tea Party President Theresa Camoriano wrote in an emailed statement. “However, we believe we are much farther ahead than we would have been if we had not challenged the tax hike.”

During the press conference Thursday, Pollio called the new law “problematic.” He said it could curtail efforts to raise more local funds, at the same time that state lawmakers are cutting or leaving flat state funding for public schools, also known as SEEK.

“If we are not going to get the funding from SEEK dollars, then superintendents in this Commonwealth have no other option but to ask local residents to fund schools the way they need to be funded,” he said.

This story has been updated.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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