In a single phone call on an afternoon in June, Superintendent Kent Sherrow learned that his Iron County C-4 School District would lose nearly a quarter of its budget. Doe Run Mining Company had contested its property tax assessment, lopping off more than $1 million from the Ozark school district’s revenue.
“It’s not the same district it was a year ago,” Sherrow said. “Right now, our whole district is in a situation where we’ve got to catch our breath and get our feet back under us.”
School will feel different when students return to class Thursday. Sherrow eliminated 15 staff positions through not filling vacancies and layoffs. Activities including baseball, cheerleading and golf have been cut. He’s considering mothballing some of the district’s facilities. Its budget had been about $4.7 million.
“This budget is never going to be what it used to be, so we’re going to get used to living like this,” said Sherrow, who is beginning his second year atop the district.
Last fall, a multi-year property tax dispute between the assessor in Reynolds County — southwest of Iron County — and Doe Run came to an end in a win for the mining company. Doe Run now pays less than the assessor had initially billed, but more important, the Missouri State Tax Commission decreed that the way counties were assessing the mines’ value was flawed.
Doe Run affirms that it’s committed to “paying at least our fair share of taxes” and that it is important the Reynolds County case established a method for assessing its mines’ property values.
“Their findings essentially confirmed we had been overpaying our real property taxes. When we overpay for something over a period [of] time, this impacts our ability to compete and to reinvest in our business,” Gary Mard, Doe Run’s chief financial officer, said in a statement.
The precedent set by the Reynolds County case, however, allowed Doe Run to challenge its value in neighboring Iron County.
While the Reynolds County dispute played out in front of the tax commission and later Missouri judges, the Bunker School District forewent nearly $7 million, cutting about $1 million in annual spending.
That new reality now confronts Iron County schools, which educates about 400 students from Iron, Crawford and Dent counties in a part of the state where most of the map is colored green by national forest land.
Doe Run says it’s invested in its community and has donated $571,000 to area school districts and for college scholarships over the past three years.
“We also have a responsibility to operate our company in a way that ensures our business stability, so that we can continue to be a source of jobs, taxes, donations and other economic impacts into the future,” said Mard, the Doe Run executive.
Lead mining is one of the largest businesses in the area and, along with timber, a major source of employment. Doe Run pays nearly $5 million in annual property taxes. There are three mines at least partially in Iron County, as well as a recycling facility and mill. Nearly 150 people living in Iron County work for Doe Run.
Iron County officials are negotiating with Doe Run over the property tax bill, which could ease the financial pain on the schools. A county official declined to comment on the talks.
Superintendent Sherrow is resolute the district will come out stronger. “But for today,” he said, “we believe that we have to get used to this new school size, the new realities that we have.”
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