Midwest Voices

Liberty schools look to close revenue gap

Updated: 2013-11-06T00:54:00Z

By JEFF BOWLES

Special to The Star

As our economy slowly recovers from the 2007 financial collapse, the unfortunate after-effects of the Great Recession continue. One particularly ugly consequence is the financial meltdown’s lingering effect on public school funding.

For simplicity’s sake, you can think of public school funding as a pie made up of three primary pieces. The largest slice of the pie comes from revenue a school district collects from local property taxes. Then, you’ve got a smaller slice that comes from state funding and a tiny sliver representing federal funding.

So what’s happened to these pieces of pie over the last few years? They’ve shrunk.

While the stock market may have returned most of its losses since the collapse, property values are still lagging. And state coffers are still stretched. Translation? Lower assessed property values and shortfalls in state education funding.

This puts suburban, bedroom communities, which can’t rely on steady tax revenue from big businesses, in a serious bind. Take the Liberty Public School District as an example.

The Northland district has been accredited with distinction and on average performs in the top 10 percent of districts in the state of Missouri. As a result, it has seen steady increases in enrollment as families north of the river gravitate to new developments and great schools that are just a 15-minute commute from downtown Kansas City. Over the last few years the district has added hundreds of new students to its charge each year and anticipates adding 2,500 more by 2020.

However, while the number of students the Liberty Public School District is serving has grown since the financial collapse, the total assessed valuation of all property in the district, which makes up the biggest piece of the pie in terms of operating revenue, has shrunk. Homes are worth less, and the property taxes they bring in are now smaller.

To add insult to injury, the Missouri legislature is currently shortchanging school districts statewide by about $600 million a year because of its failure to meet the school funding formula it passed into law in 2005. For Liberty, that means a $4 million annual shortfall.

So what’s a school district to do? Well, in the last five years the Liberty Public School District has frozen teacher wage scales twice, trimmed staff head count, rented portable classrooms in lieu of new construction and shaved $5 million from its operating budget in an effort to make ends meet.

But those cuts aren’t enough to fill a gap caused by demographic shifts and an economic downturn well outside of the district’s control.

So, on Tuesday, the Liberty Public School District will act as a canary in a coal mine and do what other area districts will be required to do in the next few years — ask voters to make an investment in their community and fill the gap by approving a modest increase in their tax levy.

The ballot issue asks voters to increase the levy ceiling by 36 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, which would result in a property tax increase of $161 per year for residents with a $200,000 home and personal property valued at $20,000.

The levy increase would generate more than $3 million a year, filling the gap created by the state’s underfunding and be used to address the district’s overcrowding issues by providing additional permanent classroom space, science labs and physical education space, and to enhance entryway security and provide technology enhancements that would allow the district to improve learning outcomes while minimizing the need for additional physical space.

It’s an important vote for Liberty residents whether or not they have school-age children. After all, as an area’s school district goes, so go the property values.

So if you live in Liberty, decide to make an investment in your local community, in the future value of your property and in the lives of the kids the school district serves, and vote “yes” on Tuesday.

And if you don’t, just stay tuned. An issue like this is likely coming to a district near you soon.

Jeff Bowles of Kansas City owns a marketing and promotions company. To reach him, send email to oped@kcstar.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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