Voters in Lenoir City get to decide in November on a half-cent sales tax increase generally earmarked for school safety.
The idea of using a sales tax hike for local safety upgrades first became public in May during a school safety task force meeting led by Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens. He pointed to the tax as a way to fund various safety measures discussed during two meetings of the task force.
While task force members clearly identified where $1.89 million in annual revenue could be found through sales tax, they were rather short on details explaining how the windfall would be spent every year. The task force hasn’t met since mid-May.
Lenoir City Council, which voted unanimously in July to put the sales tax increase on the ballot, offered limited discussion and few details during public hearings about the subject. A joint meeting between council and Lenoir City Board of Education was peppered with numerous comments about “keeping the children safe,” but again offered little specifics on how additional sales tax money would accomplish that goal.
Jeanne Barker, director of schools and a task force member, did provide some cost estimates in an email to a News-Herald reporter. She outlined $785,000 in recurring annual expenses, not including transportation upgrades for which Barker did not detail costs. The breakdown included:
- $260,000 for four school resource officers. Only two of those SROs, at a cost of roughly $130,000, would be a new expense since the system already employs two.
- $150,000 for social workers.
- $200,000 for registered nurses. The school system currently budgets $135,756 for medical personnel.
During the school safety task force meetings in May, Lenoir City Police Chief Don White pushed for fencing around Lenoir City High School, which Barker estimated would have a one-time cost of $500,000-$750,000. The task force also discussed the possibility of installing a system at LCHS that would require students and teachers use key cards to gain entry.
Is the community, which includes parents and taxpayers, concerned about keeping students safe while at school? Obviously, yes. Is it possible that additional school resource officers, social workers and guidance counselors could help in such an effort? Yes. Are there other measures both the city and school system could make a case for — fencing, better doors and locks, cameras, etc. — that will require additional funding? Yes.
Lenoir City moved quickly to put this on the November ballot because school safety is an urgent matter. Local officials wanted to be responsive, especially following tragic shootings in Florida and Texas earlier this year. We’re grateful for the initiative, and so are parents.
But, quite frankly, the math right now just doesn’t add up, especially when considering the sales tax hike will garner $1.89 million in additional revenue every year. Where will all that money go? During the two task force meetings, the overall strategy focused on keeping students safe from dangers outside the schools. The reality is that the vast majority of school shootings have been at the hands of students or recent students. Fences, key cards, locks — all those items won’t help when a student already has access. How will that be addressed?
This an emotional subject, but emotions can’t be the cause of writing the city and school system a blank check. If officials in Lenoir City and Lenoir City Schools are serious about school safety — and we believe they are — then some due diligence is needed now to give voters the confidence they need to approve this sales tax increase. What is required is a longterm, comprehensive plan coupled with concrete cost estimates. Without simply plying on emotions, show voters why it’s needed, what it will cost and how the plan will be implemented. Isn’t the safety of our children worth that effort?
Otherwise, voters will — and should — say “no.”