Johnson County residents have been calling for local control of our schools since 1992, when we lost much of our ability to tax ourselves for our schools, with the state taking over.
This month, all school districts in the county except Spring Hill will give school patrons the opportunity to make more local control a reality through mail-in ballots.
And in Shawnee Mission School District, there are two chances for patrons to send a message that they care about their schools and are willing to pay for them.
One of two issues on the mail-in ballot in Shawnee Mission will be a proposed $223 million bond issue, the first since 2004. Patrons have the opportunity to make significant improvements in the district without a tax increase. Shawnee Mission has never lost a bond election.
Among the many proposals included in the bond issue are new schools that will be built for a district still growing, and a new facility for administration, combining three facilities into one new facility, which will save the district $2 million a year in administrative costs.
While the state has most of the control over school budgets, capital improvements, such as buildings, can be funded locally through bond issues without any kind of cap or interference from the state.
The local option budget will be on mail-in ballots. Taxpayers will have the opportunity to make permanent what the state allowed this past year, which is an increase from 31 to 33 percent.
That means everyone pays a little more to augment what the state is willing to fund for the operations of K-12 schools.
What is the local option budget all about?
In 1992, legislators decided it wasn’t fair for some districts in the state to pay more per student than other districts.
The statewide base state aid per pupil was set at $3,600.
That amount meant that Shawnee Mission District, in particular, would have taken a huge hit on its budget, to the tune of $9 million.
Johnson County legislators balked over passing the new method of funding, until this issue was resolved.
Legislative leadership finally came up with a solution. School districts would be able to supplement what the state funds by allowing local patrons to tax themselves up to a certain percentage of what they receive from the state. That number has crept up gradually over the years, but it never did totally fix the problem for Shawnee Mission.
Because there is a cap on how much a local district can raise — set by the state — Shawnee Mission, in particular, has been in a budget crunch ever since. The local option budget has not been adequate to keep funding the district at a level patrons want.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback pledged that he would seek to have the cap on the local option budget removed entirely, and allow district patrons to pay any amount they see fit.
That concept has not caught on in Topeka.
A majority of legislators thinks it would be unfair if certain districts, like Shawnee Mission, were willing and able to spend far more on their students than other districts, which might not be able or willing to afford to raise local taxes.
As a result of that attitude, Johnson County legislators have fought tooth and nail to raise the lid on the local option budget.
Now, voters throughout Johnson County will get a chance to confirm that, indeed, they are willing to pay a little more to maintain the excellence of our schools.
And voters in Shawnee Mission have the opportunity to take a big leap forward in the kind of first-class facilities the district’s patrons deserve.
| Special to The Star