ASHLAND—Fifty-four years ago, as America was still trying to climb out of the Depression, Ashland residents voted a tax on themselves to start a junior college.
The school became the first of its kind in Kentucky and evolved into Ashland Community College. The tax, now used to fund a cooperative program between ACC and the city schools, also persists.
That precedent of shouldering responsibility for educational improvement—even in tough times—has been repeated down through the years in Ashland and other Eastern Kentucky communities, belying the perception that the region is one that generally shrinks from responsibility. To be sure, that commitment has not always come easily, not without great personal sacrifice . . .
It took four straight years of voting to pass the bond issue that built Paul G. Blazer High School and two elementary schools in the ‘60s. In 1979, Ashland voted down a utilities tax before narrowly passing it a year later. That tax provided most of the money for a five-year school building program.
By comparison, the junior college tax won in a walk.
“Starting a municipal college was a new idea, and it came at a time when the Depression had all the people in towns in a money bind,” said Attorney Henderson Dysard, who did the legal work for the school board in those days.
Dysard, who still practices law here, said some of the impetus for a two-year college came from teachers who wanted to be able to pursue degrees without leaving town.
The General Assembly opened the door for endeavors like AJC in 1937 by passing what was called “the H.S. Swope Bill.” The measure answered a request from six second-class cities, including Ashland, that they be permitted to levy a tax of 5 to 7 cents to support operation of a junior college.
Delayed a year by court action, Ashland Junior College opened on Sept. 12, 1938. No other college was created under the law, although Paducah did start one under separate legislation, according to Dr. Robert Goodpaster, retired ACC director.
Backers of the school, fearful of legal problems, filed a suit to test the constitutionality of the law. By fall, the courts had ruled Swope constitutional, providing the school gain approval from city voters.
The special election was held on election day in November 1937 and it passed 3,468 to 2,904.
The school district paid $38,000 for an educational building put up less than 10 years earlier at the corner of 15th Street and Central Avenue by first Methodist Church South. The site now houses the offices of the Ashland Board of Education.
In 1957, University of Kentucky trustees, acting at the urging of Paul Blazer Sr., entered into an agreement that called for the board to furnish land, equipment and other support while the university took over the teaching program at the college. The agreement limited Ashland’s costs to the amount brought in by the 1938 tax.
In 1984, Boyd Circuit Court upheld the right of the school board to continue to collect the tax, even though its revenue no longer went directly to support the college. Officials from ACC and the school system came up with a use for the money, a cooperative program whose primary emphasis was the acquisition of computers.
The $280,000 the tax now generates annually is a major source of matching money for grants—cooperative director Jim Winter estimates it’s helped secure a half million dollars in outside money the past seven years. It also pays for teacher training and for a “teacher preparation center” at the college open to faculty from ACC and city schools. There teachers can “make copies, laminate, use computers, whatever’s necessary to get ready for class,” Winter said. . . .