Plans for a Kansas City school levy election for universal pre-kindergarten will simply need to wait.
Mayor Sly James and other civic leaders say that they want to get behind the nonprofit Early Learning Commission’s election plan — but that this fall is not the time.
The city’s 1 percent earnings tax probably will go before voters in the spring of 2016. James and the others want nothing with the word “tax” in it crossing the community radar before that vote is in.
“We’re pivoting,” said George Lopez, the Early Learning Commission’s interim committee chair. “The buildup to the earnings tax campaign is the most important part of the civic landscape.”
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Universal pre-K is likely to get its shot in the summer of 2016, in June or August, he said.
James, in conversations with the Early Learning Commission, shared his concern at having “two critical, high-profile issues” in play at the same time, said the mayor’s chief of staff, Joni Wickham.
“Whenever possible, the mayor would prefer a coordinated approach to asking residents for approval of ballot questions,” she said.
The Early Learning Commission is working with the Kansas City school board to put a measure on a ballot that requests a $1.05 levy increase to support qualifying pre-kindergarten programming in the school district’s boundaries. The district’s board and the boards of some 20 public charter schools in the district would all have to agree to let the new revenue be redirected.
Such a levy would generate about $28 million a year. That matches what the commission estimates is needed to quadruple the current number of children in pre-K classes to 4,800.
The city’s earnings tax brings in around $220 million to support city services. By state law, voters in Kansas City must reapprove the tax in 2016 or it will be shelved for at least 10 years. Voters strongly supported renewal in 2011, but city and civic officials are nervous.
The city needs “all hands on deck” for the earnings tax, Lopez said.
The decision to delay an early-learning tax issue was an easy one, he said, particularly because any revenue from property taxes would not arrive until January 2017 — whether an increase levy is approved in November or next summer.
“It gives us more time to work on our plan,” Lopez said.
The commission would work through two committees — one that maintains a rating system that would qualify successful pre-kindergarten schools to participate in a network of schools and a second committee that would administer funds.
The levy would expire after five years. Members of the commission plan to pursue legislative approval for a special taxing district to replace the levy and give voters a chance to expand universal pre-K across multiple Kansas City area districts.
James, who has championed the city’s Turn the Page KC effort to get more children reading at grade level by the third grade, supports early education and is eager to see more details in the commission’s plan, Wickham said. He is glad the panel is taking extra time to plan its approach.
“This issue is extremely important, and even personal, for the mayor,” she said.
But so is the earnings tax, and it is up first.