If nothing changes, the Leslie County school system faces a deficit next school year equal to 12 teaching positions.

Unpaid property taxes play a role in the shortfall. Since 2003, county property owners have failed to pay more than $1.4 million in taxes that would have gone to the schools.

After inquiries from the Herald-Leader about those unpaid taxes, local officials began an unprecedented effort last month to collect delinquent taxes in hopes of staving off such deep cuts in the schools.

County Attorney Leroy Lewis’ office sent out notices in early February to hundreds of property owners who didn’t pay taxes in 2003 and 2012. There were nearly 1,800 delinquent bills from those two years, County Clerk James Lewis said.

The plan is to send out collection letters later for all years from 2003 through 2012, Lewis said.

To entice people to pay up, Lewis said, his office and the fiscal court, sheriff and county attorney are waiving a portion of the fees they are due from the delinquent bills.

There hasn’t been a similar collection effort by the county attorney’s office in his 30 years as clerk, Lewis said.

Records show that some property owners in the county have skipped paying taxes for five years or more.

The list of delinquent taxpayers includes former Judge-Executive Kenneth Witt, who has outstanding tax bills from three of his four years in office from 2003 through 2006. Attempts to reach Witt were unsuccessful.

The percentage of unpaid property taxes had gone down from levels above 12 percent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, improving to a low of 4.9 percent in 2008.

A sharp downturn in the coal industry has since wiped out hundreds of good-paying jobs in the relatively poor county, and the delinquency rate rose in 2013 to 7.1 percent – one of the highest in the state, but lower than the rate in nine other counties.

The attempt in Leslie County to collect delinquent taxes grew out of the grim financial outlook for the school system, which faces declining enrollment and increased costs.

The district has cut staff in the central office and combined jobs to preserve teaching slots, and it has made Band-Aid repairs to an aging heating system at one elementary school to push back the $100,000 replacement cost.

Still, costs for next year are projected to increase by $600,000 or more because of several factors, including a state-mandated raise for teachers and higher retirement, insurance and electricity costs, Superintendent Anthony Little said.

Grants that the district received for a counselor and math teacher also expire this year, so the district will have to pick up those costs if it wants to keep the positions, Little said.

The school system’s draft budget assumes the loss of 12 teaching or administrative positions, out of about 140 on the system’s payroll.

Little said school officials will look for other ways to trim costs, such as cutting electricity use. There might also be some retirements that would reduce the payroll.

But the effort to collect on the backlog of unpaid taxes will be crucial in avoiding job losses, Little said.

“Without significant collections, I don’t see how we could avoid some cutbacks,” Little said.