The Harbinger Online

School Districts should be allowed to use more local funding

Across the Shawnee Mission School District there have been a series of budget meetings informing people on the current financial state of the district. At these meetings, administrator Gene Johnson has stated the many budgetary cuts the Shawnee Mission School District will be taking to get out of their current debt. But a key part of this plan that was not included in these meetings is the possibility of a local tax.

This is a great option for a number of reasons, but above all else, it would give more power to the everyday citizen even if it is not passed.

With the current troubles that the SMSD is going through, this connection between administrator and citizen is now needed more than ever. Improvement cannot be brought about simply by budget cuts. Citizens need to be involved in local elections and given the right to vote on these issues. A simple solution, if passed, would be a minor tax that can be either be voted yes or no on in local elections.

In 2003, this was used in Johnson County when voters were asked to answer yes or no on a quarter-cent sales tax which would help fund public schools in Johnson County. It was ultimately adopted and renewed again in 2006, but for the last time. In its three year span, the eligible public school districts received slightly more than $66.4 million dollars in taxes, according to JoCogov.org.

The SMSD was included among these districts. The extra money that went to the district was used in many areas and ultimately beneficial.

However, if our district wants to make a tax like this a possibility yet again, they must get the state to change current restrictions put on our Local Option Budget (LOB). Currently, 31 percent of our general fund comes in through this budget, which is essentially just taxes. The other 69 percent comes from state legislature. The formula used for how much money the state give districts is $4,200 multiplied by the number of students a district has, in our case, 28,000.

This law was originally enacted in 1992 so smaller districts who don’t have a lot of local income can sustain themselves. The problem now with the larger districts is that the 31 percent coming in locally is not enough. In the SMSD’s case, they need more money now, and if 31 percent was to raise to 40 percent, the district would have much more money coming in through taxes.

The district is currently trying to get this law changed and they are right in this stance for a number of reasons.

Currently in the district, a tax similar to the aforementioned is an absolute necessity. In the past decade, the district has steadily declined financially, losing state funded money each year. Last year, budgetary cuts were deemed necessary in many departments– certain elementary schools were combined or flat-out shut down, the CIS program was relocated to Shawnee Mission South and Driver’s Education Programs were eliminated.  And this year an additional $10.2 million is estimated to be cut from the budget according to the local budget meetings.

So, if the state can change the current law, a very minor tax could be an option in local elections that would go towards fixing the current budgetary woes in the district.

Some may make the argument that people will not be so quick to vote yes on something that will take money from their own pocket. But as the second largest school district in Kansas with 28,000 students and 4,100 employees, the SMSD’s problems are an obvious concern for a large demographic of people. Already a group has been formed called “Save the Shawnee Mission School District.” The group follows the district and even has their own Web site where you can learn about the current state of the district and offers steps on how you can help out.

Also, some people find this tax unfair because rural districts with less money would not be able to pull off such a levy. And while this is true, in some ways the SMSD is in more need of financial aid than rural districts.

One of the main reasons the SMSD is eligible for this tax in the first place is that their money per student rate is notably low — $8,890 according to the Kansas City Star. But in rural schools that number is substantially higher — Healy School District in Healy, Kansas has $19,943 available per student, West Solomon in Lenora, Kansas has $19,356 and Jewell in Randall, Kansas has $18,580.

All of these districts contain just a fraction of the students that the SMSD has and consequently, more money is open for each student. So right now, the SMSD needs these taxes more than that of rural districts.

So why not go for this additional tax? If our current funding system can be changed, a tax like this could only be beneficial to the district. If it is passed, it will bring in a substantially higher amount of money than now. And if it’s rejected, at least citizens had a say in the tax and were involved.

A key element to getting out of financial debt is involvement of the people. In continuing to move towards this tax, the SMSD is giving hope that they can get out of their problematic financial state.

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