600+ signatures and counting

Petition efforts in Lakeland continue as organizers work to force a referendum on the $50 million school bond issue.
Jeremy Shiffer of Lakeland talks to fellow resident, John Keller, as he signs the petition to require a city-wide vote on the $50 million school bond issuance.
Photo by John Collins

Locals aim to force a vote on Lakeland’s $50M bond.

HOW TO GET INVOLVED

  • Concerned Citizens of Lakeland: Ask to be added to this Facebook group to participate in discussions.
  • Petition for a referendum: Contact community activist Stephanie Lefler of Lakeland via email at stephlefler@gmail.com about the petition or come by her house at 9606 Oak Point Cove and sign the petition on her front porch. Note: A referendum would only apply to the bond issuance for Lakeland Prep.
  • Support Lakeland Schools: A short link to this Facebook page is bit.ly/SupportLSS.
  • City agendas: Access agendas for meetings of Lakeland’s mayor and city board at tn-lakeland.civicplus.com/archive.asp (select “Board of Commissioners Agendas” to see a drop-down menu). Meetings are public, and citizens can address the board briefly at every business meeting.

Some Lakeland residents are determined to have a citywide vote on the $50 million school bond, and they are taking their case door to door. As of Sunday, they had the signatures of more than 600 of Lakeland’s registered voters on a petition to force a referendum.

On Dec. 11, Lakeland’s city board approved issuing up to $50 million in general obligation school bonds to build a new junior/senior high school known as Lakeland Prep.

Getting a $50 million debt without letting citizens vote was instantly unpopular among Lakeland Prep’s skeptics, who started a petition the same day.

The city’s bond notice was published in the Commercial Appeal on Dec. 16. Organizers have 20 calendar days from then to garner the signatures of at least 10 percent (about 840 people) of the city’s registered voters. They are shooting for 1,000 to allow for errors and disqualifications.

Although Mayor Wyatt Bunker tried to get a referendum approved at the December meeting, his motion failed. So he was the 400th signatory on the petition. (He also wanted to put the tax increase to a referendum, but state law didn’t permit that, he said. It does for the bond issuance.)

Bunker said, “Decisions like that rise to the level of the voters.”

Manuel Naveiras of Lakeland is one of the core group of about 10 volunteers, and he got 80 signatures himself in three days. Only seven of the homes he visited refused to sign the petition. He estimated they are getting an 80-90 percent acceptance rate on their petition efforts.

He’s confident there will be a referendum and that most people will vote against the bond.
“I think the overwhelming feeling is anger and disappointment toward the administration,” he said.

Naveiras explained the petitioners’ viewpoint.

“We just don’t want this city to absorb so much debt with such little revenue at this time that the city most likely will not be able to meet its obligations without a possible additional tax increase within the next three to five years. I have asked during one of the meetings the board of commissioners if they were so sure the 55 cent tax was going to finance the bond, would they be willing to agree to a seven-year tax freeze, and not one of them agreed to that.”

Bunker and school board chairman Kevin Floyd are equally confident that most citizens will approve the bond issue.

In the meantime, the school board is moving forward with design and land negotiations. They hope to hear from their consultants on a recommended property at the January meeting, Floyd said.

On Monday afternoon, several former Lakeland elected officials spoke out in support of the school bond referendum. (See their letter here.)

The numbers

The petition organizers, known online as the Facebook group, “Concerned Citizens of Lakeland,” beg to differ with city and school leaders on the affordability of Lakeland Prep.

Mike Shideler of Lakeland has been the go-to numbers guy for locals concerned about the costs of building Lakeland Prep and the bond issuance.

He broke down the revenue stream:

  • He said the first property tax was 85 cents per $100 of assessed value. Of that amount, 25 cents were reserved for schools (15 cents for operations and 10 cents for capital improvement projects, like building Lakeland Prep, repairing roofs, etc.) The remaining 60 cents were to be used for the city’s critical infrastructure improvements, he said.
  • The local option sales tax was a half-cent increase, the maximum allowed by law. Most is supposed to go to the school system, he said.
  • The new 55-cent property tax will become effective Jan. 1, he said, although it won’t officially pass until July 1 with the new budget. (It will be retroactively effective, he said.) He said that should generate just under $1.7 million per year.

The city’s revenue would consistently be short of what is needed, he said.

Shideler said the last property tax increase raised a little under $1.7 million. He believes a similar increase will be needed just to pay the bond debt.

That is why he supports a referendum, Shideler said. “What I do want is to pause.”

He believes it would be much more prudent to save until the city has $25-$30 million, which he believes is entirely possible within the lifetime of the interlocal agreement with Arlington, and then borrow a much smaller sum to build.

Floyd, however, says the current plans for Lakeland Prep and the bond issue actually are affordable, based on expert advice from a professional consulting firm and the city’s auditors.

“They all say we can do it right now with funds and revenue that Lakeland has,” Floyd said. “There’s no reason to believe there will be future tax increases, based on what we’ve heard from our advisors.”

Bunker also remains convinced by advice from the city’s professional consultants. They advised on what revenue was needed to support the bonds and how long the city would operate in the red, based on conservative growth projections and not counting on income from new Lakeland businesses like the Sprouts grocery store moving into the old Kroger location. (He estimated that will bring in $500,000 annually.)

He said if the city takes on the bond issuance, it’s projected to operate in the red until 2023, and the total amount to subsidize the city through then would be $2.5 million, available from the city’s reserves of approximately $6 million. Bond payments also will include principal and interest, so there is nothing owed on the bonds at the end of 30 years.

He believes the city can manage the debt through lean budgeting, use of reserves and continuing business sector growth

What’s the need?

Floyd cited three reasons for having a bond issue and building Lakeland Prep now: Arlington Middle School is over capacity. Interest rates are at historic lows. And land prices are equally low. He believes those are compelling factors.

Bunker said, “It’s critical for our city to build a school and offer K-12 within our city limits.”

Arlington grew 300 percent from when it built schools in 2000 to 2010, Bunker said. He is also troubled by Lakeland’s real estate numbers.

For example, Lakeland’s August 2014 total home sales were down 40.6 percent while Arlington’s were up 30.8 percent.

“That’s significant,” he said. “That trend will continue if we don’t do something to answer that question where your children are going to go K-12.”

Petition organizers say they aren’t against building a school — they are against borrowing so much money and building now.

Stephanie Lefler of Lakeland, who runs “petition central” from her home, said, “This is the single biggest decision we’ve ever faced as a city.”

She found town hall meetings and school/city board meetings frustrating. “We were never getting anything but what the plan was and how great it would be.”

Speaking about the bond issue and the city board and mayor, she said, “It’s a huge decision that will be made by five people that will affect all of us for 30 years.”

Money concerns

Lefler believes more taxes are inevitable in the future if the current Lakeland Prep plan and its financing proceed. That’s unfortunate, in her view, because many residents came to Lakeland because it had low taxes.

Shideler shares her concerns about politicians adding more burdens to the taxpayers. “When they need money, they come to the property tax piggy bank.”

The arguments

The petition organizers are dismissing key arguments made by the school and city boards.

  • Local control

“We have a seven-year agreement with Arlington schools,” Naveiras said. “Before Shelby County Schools took over the Memphis city schools, nobody in Lakeland complained about their children going to Arlington Middle or High School.”

He continued, “When Lakeland kids are in the Arlington schools, Arlington teachers do not know the difference between an Arlington student and a Lakeland student. They treat them all the same.”

Lefler agreed. She also said people who think Lakeland Prep can be run like a private school are misinformed; it would be a public school subject to the same requirements as all other Tennessee public schools.

  • Interest rates

“There’s no guarantee what interest rates are going to be doing one to three years from now, so how can you speculate it’s going to go up?” Naveiras asked. “There are no economic indices that show it’s going to be going up.”

  • City competition

Families also might skip moving to Lakeland if property taxes are sky high without the amenities that other municipalities enjoy, such as fire and police protection or a library, Naveiras said.

Naveiras believes Lakeland can grow its business sector without pouring millions into a new school right away. He cited the arrival of LA Fitness and the upcoming move of a Sprouts grocery store into the old Kroger location – all done without a middle or high school.

Another petitioner, Jeremy Shiffer of Lakeland, is the father of two girls in the fifth and seventh grades. Although he’s a reserved person, he’s put his neck out to gather petition signatures.
He doesn’t buy arguments that people will not move to Lakeland if it only has an elementary school.

Potential residents will see they’re zoned for the highly rated Arlington schools, he said, adding, “I don’t see how increasing the tax rate is going to attract people to come live here.”

Bunker disagrees that spending now will deter new residents. Families attract businesses, and families are attracted by good schools, he said.

  • Arlington overcrowding

School capacity issues in Arlington will not affect the district’s willingness to educate Lakeland’s children, and parents from both municipalities have a voice in their children’s education, according to Arlington school superintendent Tammy Mason. (See more details here.)

Shideler said Arlington Middle is at 105.4 percent capacity, unless the portable classrooms currently in use are considered.

With those in the mix, the true number is 96 percent, he said.

He also said Lakeland’s school board caused some of the overcrowding at Arlington Middle School. Lakeland children who live west of Canada Road were supposed to be zoned to Bon Lin Middle School. Lakeland asked Arlington to accommodate the middle schoolers. Arlington complied. That put AMS over capacity, he said.

“They made a problem and then tried to use that problem as justification to spend this money,” he said.

Floyd, however, said Arlington Middle’s shared spaces (such as hallways, cafeteria, etc.) still will feel the overcrowding.

Feeling misled

The petition organizers said they also feel misled by campaign promises. When Lakeland’s leaders campaigned to create the school district, they promised no new taxes other than the sales tax increase and no immediate need for building new schools, Naveiras said.

Jay Luther of Lakeland is another citizen who feels misled. He had gathered 130 signatures by this past weekend.

Although his children attend a private school, he believes the issue is important for everyone.
“It affects me as a taxpayer,” he said.

Morale

This issue has hurt the city’s morale, many petition organizers believe.

Naveiras said, “It has divided Lakeland into two groups, like I have never seen a city divided.”
Floyd, however disagrees with claims that this issue is polarizing Lakeland.

“I don’t think it’s as divided as everybody is making it out to be. I think there are a select few who are making this so divisive.”

Voting outcome

Naveiras said, “If the majority of Lakeland residents vote for the bond, then I will not argue it anymore, because all I want is the Lakeland residents’ voices to be heard.”

Shifferand luther also plan to remain as well, no matter how a vote goes.

Lefler said she would respect the residents’ decision if they embrace the bond issuance, but she will vote with her feet and move elsewhere.

“I will have no other choice,” she said. “I’m a fiscal realist.”

If the bond is voted down, Naveiras said, “We start over, take a step at a time and try to figure out what our needs are for schools and how we can do it in a fiscally responsible way.”

One option would be to build just a middle school, he said. “Why are we going to build a high school now if we don’t need one right now? We build what we need.”


Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to barlett.editor@journalinc.com.