A joint board comprised of members from the Washington County and Johnson City boards of education is continuing to explore the possibility of supporting a quarter-cent sales tax increase, which officials believe could save a number of jobs and educational programs in both school systems.
With both school systems facing budget concerns, both boards formed an exploratory committee in May to begin examining the pros and cons. The committee, which also includes financial directors from both systems and commissioners from both the city and county, met Tuesday at the Washington County Department of Education in Jonesborough to discuss the possible sales tax increase before taking it before their respective commissions in the coming months.
Phillip McLain, chairman of the Washington County Board of Education, said he believes a sales tax increase is in favor of the students in both systems.
“It’s for the benefit of the students in Washington County — the entire county and Johnson City is right in the center of it. They’ve got something over 7,000 students and we’ve got over 9,000 students, so this is for the students. It’s just to help us to better educate those students, to get them ready for life, college and career,” he said.
Kathy Hall, chairwoman of the Johnson City Board of Education, said both systems are facing increased costs, and are facing the possibility of cutting both staff and programs. She said the decision of increasing the sales tax by a quarter-cent is all “about keeping status quo.”
“We are sinking and we need to do something to make sure that we keep the programs that are what our students need and want and keep the education level where it should be. If we don’t see an increase in revenue in whatever source it is, we’re really looking at some major cuts, and they could be anything from arts programs to after school programs,” she said.
A major point discussed at a meeting in May between the two school boards was the possibility of the state increasing the sales tax rate and keeping the revenue. Currently, the state keeps 7 percent of Washington County’s 9.5 percent sales tax rate. If the state opted to raise the rate before it was raised locally, the revenue from that increase would go to the state.
Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes addressed that issue again during Tuesday’s meeting.
“If it’s inevitable that a tax is coming, then obviously it would be to the county and the city’s advantage to pass it initially and keep those dollars local,” he said.
One of the other issues discussed was overcoming a hurdle when talking about raising taxes, which McLain said always raises some resistance.
Another issue addressed by McLain was the fact that the sales tax isn’t just paid by the residents of Washington County. It’s a tax that would be paid by anyone who spends money in the county, whether it be by grocery shopping, staying in a hotel or eating in one of the county restaurants. He and several other board members believe there is a significant volume of retail dollars that would end up benefitting both school systems if the sales tax is increased.
“What we’ve got to do is sell the positives of this and the benefits of it, and we’ll let the voters decide,” he said.
Both boards will create a resolution to present to their respective commissisons, who will have to vote in favor before it is formally requested to be put on the ballot.
If the commissions support the increase, paperwork must be filled with the election office by December for it to appear on the March ballot.