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Tornado-impacted school districts hope for tax-base stability for their futures

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Dawson Springs Independent Schools

As the school year starts up in much of the state, leadership at western Kentucky school districts hit hard by last year’s tornado outbreak see the future of their districts tied to the future of their local tax bases.

Two tornado-impacted communities have their own school districts — Mayfield and Dawson Springs. Mayfield Independent School District Director of People Personnel Kelly Stinson said enrollment is up in the district this year. Dawson Springs Independent School District Superintendent Leonard Whalen said the district of little more than 500 students is down about 15 from last school year, but they expect a few more to enroll by Labor Day.

Both districts lost many homes in the December tornado outbreak, which potentially leaves them vulnerable to lose financial support with a lessened tax base. Both districts also previously expressed concerns about losing state funding tied to student enrollment because of the potential for families to leave their communities.

Mayfield Independent School District hasn’t seen much change due to the tornado, Stinson said. Overall, the district has weather safety measures in place and plans to continue to do drills as normal.

“There are a few families who are still homeless and displaced due to the tornado and we are still assisting with those needs,” Stinson said.

Stinson said the district isn’t exactly sure the reasons behind enrollment slightly ticking up. Right now, the school district isn’t concerned about the potential lost tax base in the area from the tornado. Stinson said they’ve looked to the state government for assistance with things MISD has needed help with.

“For example with transportation, they have assisted with the funding to help with transporting displaced students, so thus far they have been very helpful in our needs,” Stinson said.

When or if a lessened tax base becomes a concern for MISD, Stinson said they’re hopeful the state government will help the district out. Right now, they’re not really seeing the effects of the lost tax base since the storm happened less than a year ago. She said the district might see the financial impacts this year when taxes come due.

“I would think if anything, [the tornado has] just made us stronger and made us make sure that we have all of our proper procedures in place for situations like this and has made us be more proactive in thinking in terms of ‘what if,’” Stinson said. “Whereas, maybe in the past, we played out scenarios but didn't to the extent we are now, just because of what we've been through.”

Dawson Springs Independent School District had about 550 students at the beginning of the last school year before the tornado and had about 535 by the end of the school year. The superintendent said they’ve bounced back some from the previous year and expect to have about 540 students enrolled in the district from preschool to 12th grade.

“Once the dust settles here, I think we're going to be very close to about what we had at the beginning of last school year,” Whalen said.

The Dawson Springs Independent School District is expecting to see some tax base loss from the tornado outbreak. Whalen said he’s been discussing this issue with local legislators and people from the governor’s office.

“I'm very hopeful that when it looks like there's going to be a special session called by the governor,” Whalen said. “I'm hopeful is [with] part of the things that they look at in eastern Kentucky, that they consider some stabilization of some tax base for schools that have been impacted by natural disasters such as us here with the tornado and those in eastern Kentucky with the flooding.”

DSISD is anticipating about $200,000 they’re going to lose from their local tax base. According to data from the Kentucky Department of Education, DSISD got $869,424 from local sources out of nearly $7.8 million in total funding the district received in 2021.

More than two-thirds of the district’s total funding that year — $5.5 million — came from the state. About half of the state’s funding to the school district came from SEEK, the state’s school district funding program that’s tied to student enrollment.

Whalen said they should be okay for this school year, but as they plan for the next year, they’ll hope to see a stabilization of the tax base to maintain their staffing levels. The estimated timeline for building back from the tornado outbreak could take three to five years to get the apartments and government housing back that was lost in Dawson Springs.

“I think anyone from around here would agree that our school is the hub of this community, it's

the heartbeat of the community,” Whalen said. “We're really a massive part of the town in the city of Dawson Springs.”

Kentucky has recently passed an open enrollment bill for school districts. Whalen said DSISD has had reciprocal agreements with school districts for Hopkins County and Caldwell County to allow students to go to DSISD schools or their preferred county schools in the past, so there isn’t much enrollment change for those school systems. However, the open enrollment will allow students in nearby Christian County to attend DSISD schools if they choose.

Whalen said the big thing for his district is getting back to their normal routine.

“Between COVID and then the tornado, the last three years or so have been difficult and obviously, that was magnified by the tornado that hit, but really just us getting back to our normal routine, our high expectations, getting back to building those strong relationships like we've historically had with our students and their families,” Whalen said. “We're just really looking forward to having a great school year.”

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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