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Syllabus: Students tackle taxing problems

On a Tuesday afternoon in late February, a partitioned-off cubicle in a downtown Winfield storefront is bustling with activity. The Eagle Nest is a self-help thrift shop run by women in transition, but from February to April of this year it’s also an office.

A middle-aged woman tells SC business student Alma Muñoz that she has allocated part of her real estate taxes to her home, and part to a farm she owns, and Muñoz enters the information into a laptop computer. On the other side of the partition a toddler crawls through the chair legs of the waiting area, and a volunteer receptionist takes the names of persons entering.

This, says SC accounting professor Karen Schoenebeck, is the real world. And eight students in the college’s Students in Free Enterprise group are right there in the thick of it.

These students have trained to become VITA representatives (Volunteers in Tax Assistance), and until April 15, they will be helping low-income tax filers complete their returns. They have been specifically charged with making sure each taxpayer who qualifies receives the earned income credit.

Schoenebeck, a certified public accountant whose specialty is tax law, supervises the student preparers. The experience, she says, has been eye-opening.

“It doesn’t get any more real than this,” she says. “The student has a taxpayer right there, and another one waiting, and they’re inputting information while they’re thinking which question they need to ask next, and they know that what they do matters. If they make a mistake, the taxpayer will not be filing properly.”

And even though the service is free, the taxpayers have every right to expect the return to be completed correctly. Some, who have had their returns filed by commercial firms in other years, take what the SC students have prepared and compare it to the previous year. Every time, Schoenebeck says, they come back knowing it has been done properly.

The SIFE project began when Michael Wood, head of the business department and SIFE sponsor, was searching for a community service project appropriate for SC’s business students. With an estimated $20 million of tax credits available in south central Kansas that could go unclaimed if the low income or disabled families are unaware of the tax credits or simply don’t file, the tax project could serve both the students and the community, Wood reasoned.

Eight students signed up and completed an IRS training session that Schoenebeck describes as excellent. Since they began the service in Winfield and Arkansas City Feb. 1, a steady stream of clients (usually five or six each day) has kept them busy.

And they’re learning as they serve this clientele. In spite of the good training, the students are seeing returns that are occasionally challenging. Even Schoenebeck is learning.

“When I was preparing taxes full-time, most of the returns I was seeing had incomes of $500,000 and up; this is a whole learning experience for me,” she says with a laugh. “But I give these students a heck of a lot of credit. Even though they might have been scared, they still chose to do this, and they’re doing a magnificent job.

“This is showing me the character of the students at this school.”