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Limestone looks at ways to finance school needs

By Holly Hollman
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2445

ATHENS — When school board members talk about funding projects, the talk inevitably turns to taxes.

Over the weekend, the Limestone County Board of Education held its summer retreat in Florence and discussed a $47 million capital needs plan.

Superintendent Barry Carroll said the board didn't propose raising taxes but looked at all funding options. The system's local money comes from property and sales taxes.

"We looked at what ifs," Carroll said. "I don't want to panic the community. General comments have been made and projections of funding and revenues have been discussed, but no formal proposals for additional revenues have been made."

County Commission Chairman David Seibert said he talked to the board at the retreat about "what would have to take place" for a sales tax or property tax increase.

The sales tax is 6 percent in the county, with 4 percent of that being state tax.

Residents currently pay 8.5 mills in property tax. On Feb. 15, voters approved renewing that 8.5 mills for 20 years for the Limestone and Athens school systems.

Seibert said the board has not officially asked whether the commission would support an increase. He said the commission could pass a sales tax increase or ask voters to approve one. The county would have to ask voters for a property tax increase.

Carroll said the board has no other sources for funding capital needs, such as two elementary schools estimated to cost $9.5 million each. One feeder elementary school would be for Elkmont High School and the other for Clements High School.

Carroll said the board also needs to address growth in eastern Limestone County. Creekside Elementary has 800-plus students.

"Our debt service is pretty high, so we haven't explored the option of going back to the bond market," Carroll said.

The debt service for fiscal 2006 is $3.2 million.

The county may get additional funds in the future if voters approve a property tax increase proposed by the state Legislature.

In June 2006, voters statewide will vote on a constitutional amendment requiring all city and county school systems, including Limestone, to have at least 10 mills of property tax allocated for public schools. That would be the minimum amount school systems could collect and qualify for state education funds.

If it passes, Carroll said Limestone would get about $400,000 in additional funding.

"But $400,000 won't build a new school," Carroll said.

The board will discuss its proposed 2006 five-year capital plan in September. The 2005 plan proposes building the two elementary schools in 2007.

Other proposed projects include new gyms for East, West and Ardmore high schools at $2.5 million each and sewage treatment plants at Owens and Johnson elementary schools and Tanner, Elkmont and East Limestone high schools, totaling $1.73 million.

"If we continue with the funding we have now, we cannot do these projects," Carroll said. "But no one has said, 'Let's look at raising taxes.' We've just looked at what additional funding would mean."

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