New laptops for Clark-Pleasant students are out of the question.
So is replacing six aged school buses each year. Instead, buses are bought one at a time.
Clark-Pleasant Community School Corp. has been unable to collect more than $3 million each year due to property tax caps, which limit how much governments can collect in taxes. The new state law went into effect shortly after the school district borrowed $53 million to build a new middle school and intermediate school and renovate an elementary school.
Now, state tax dollars pay for schools’ operational costs. Property tax money must be used first to pay debt. Clark-Pleasant, with 6,200 students and 10 buildings, has little left for technology, new buses or building maintenance.
School officials are looking for ways to bring in more money, and one option the superintendent is pursuing are funds from special city tax districts that collect millions of dollars each year. They also want the school district to have more of a say in how those tax dollars are spent, especially as new project lists are developed.
The idea isn’t unheard of. In Franklin, those tax dollars have helped pay to make buildings more secure and could pay for new technology.
Each year, Greenwood’s two tax-increment financing (TIF) districts collect more than $7 million in property taxes. At least some of that money would go to Clark-Pleasant schools if the special taxing districts didn’t exist, since they set aside property tax dollars for economic development projects. The districts capture property taxes paid on new developments. So if a manufacturer builds a plant, the school district and other taxing units can continue to collect property taxes that had been paid on the vacant property. But the county, libraries, schools and townships do not get any additional property taxes from the new development. The city tax district captures it all.
Now, the city wants to double the size of its TIF district on the east side, which primarily falls in the Clark-Pleasant district. By expanding that TIF district, the city redevelopment commission would collect all property taxes on new commercial development, instead of allowing Clark-Pleasant schools and other governments to collect new taxes.
Superintendent Patrick Spray hopes the city will give some of that money back to the schools, especially if the redevelopment commission isn’t sure yet how it would spend all of it.
At a meeting in January, Spray laid out the school district’s financial situation and concerns and asked if school officials could be more involved in spending decisions and if at least some of that money could come back to the schools. The five-member redevelopment commission thanked him but did not respond.
Commission members said they haven’t responded because Spray didn’t make a specific request, and they have concerns about spending money from the TIF districts on schools.
Seeking a voice
TIF districts expire after 30 years, and the eastside TIF district has 14 years left; but the city could end TIF collections years early, Spray said.
“At some point, we need to say: When’s the last project for the redevelopment commission?” he said.
Spray wants the Greenwood Redevelopment Commission, which overseas spending of millions in TIF dollars, to give back some of the tax dollars collected annually to the school district and other local governments that need the money.
Regardless of what the commission decides, he wants the commission to give Clark-Pleasant officials a say in how the money is spent by, for example, allowing a school board member to serve on the commission instead of a representative from Greenwood schools, which doesn’t have as much of its district in the TIF areas. The school board representative on the commission is a nonvoting member appointed by the mayor.
The other members are appointed by the city council and the mayor and make decisions on how millions should be spent, oversee the projects after they are approved and now are discussing whether to expand one of the city’s TIF districts.
Spray also wants the commission to help Clark-Pleasant pay for some expenses, such as new, 84-seat buses that cost about $120,000 each.
Greenwood Redevelopment Commission members are concerned that spending TIF money on schools doesn’t fit how state law says that money should be spent or would use up funds needed for other redevelopment projects.
Recently, money from the TIF districts has been spent on a new Interstate 65 interchange along Worthsville Road, a new city pool and remodeling a new city hall in downtown Greenwood. Over the years, TIF money has been spent installing sewers, building a fire station or widening and improving roads — projects considered necessary to make an area ripe for economic development
‘Find specific projects’
If Greenwood does use TIF money to help the school district this year, it wouldn’t be the first to do so locally. The Franklin Redevelopment Commission spent $100,000 last year to build new entryways at some Franklin schools to increase security, so parents visiting schools have to use speakers with cameras at school entrances to get permission to enter. The school district more recently asked for $500,000 to buy laptops, but the Franklin commission hasn’t decided if it will give the schools the money.
Greenwood, though, already has helped Clark-Pleasant schools by offering to build a new access road connecting the middle school to Sheek Road, redevelopment commission member Mike Campbell said.
That approximately $630,000 road was not a required part of a Worthsville Road widening project but will ease congestion while Worthsville Road is under construction and help the school when a new I-65 exit brings heavier traffic through the area, city community development services director Mark Richards said. The city would never have chosen to build the road if the school didn’t want it, he said.
Campbell said he doesn’t expect the commission to consider Spray’s ideas soon, in part because Spray came forward with a variety of suggestions, not a specific proposal.
“If we’re going to do something, probably the best option is to find specific projects to do for them,” Campbell said. “I don’t think I would want to get involved in buying buses on an annual basis.”
Redevelopment commission member and city council member Thom Hord also didn’t think the redevelopment commission would do anything about Spray’s suggestions, unless another commissioner feels differently or Spray comes back with more specific requests. Spray seemed to be brainstorming, he said.
“Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks, is what I got,” Hord said.
Part of development
The TIF districts could give some taxable property value back, so the governments, such as Clark-Pleasant schools, would be able to collect more property taxes, Spray said. The city could give the district money or somehow help lease buses, as other options, he said.
Spray said he believes the school also can help the city in return, offering to have the school district support economic development efforts by giving school tours. People who consider moving to the area often ask about the local schools when deciding where to live, and promoting the school district to companies could help the city sell itself, he said. The condition of the district’s buildings and buses should matter to the city when it comes to economic development, he added.
“I think our schools are a huge part of economic development,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we build palaces, but curb appeal is important.”
If the city doesn’t help, the school district will have to look for other options.
“We don’t want to go to taxpayers or the city asking for a referendum to replace school buses,” Spray said. “I’m not here to be doom and gloom and ask for a handout.”
Voters likely wouldn’t support a referendum, which would add a new tax on top of the existing taxes across the school district, he said. The school district is looking for ways to pay for new buses and technology, such as laptops, without taxing residents more, he said. Asking for TIF money makes the most sense, since the TIF districts will collect millions of tax dollars the city hasn’t fully planned out how to use, he said.
But spending TIF money on the schools might not be a proper use of the money, since by state law it is supposed to be used for economic development, redevelopment commission president Mike Tapp said. The Franklin Redevelopment Commission is considering buying laptops for Franklin schools, and he’s not sure that’s the correct use of TIF money, he said.
“We’ve not discussed it, and I can’t discuss it because I don’t know what to say about it. I don’t know what we would do,” Tapp said. “I think we would want our legal counsel to do some investigation and see if it would be a proper use.”