Leaders and patrons of Johnson County school districts have long sought the authority to raise more funds through property taxes to supplement what schools receive from the state of Kansas.
Voters in five districts will have a chance to approve increases in local funding this month. They should say YES.
Registered voters should receive ballots in their mailboxes this week, and have until noon on Jan. 27 to return them to the Johnson County Election Office, either in person or by mail.
(Voters in the Shawnee Mission School District also will be asked to approve a $223 million bond proposal. See details about that on this page Thursday.)
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For all except the Gardner Edgerton district, the local option question is in some ways a formality.
School boards in the four other districts took advantage of a provision in a new state law and unilaterally authorized increases last year, raising their threshold for local funding from 31 percent to 33 percent of their general funds for the current school year. They are required by law to ask voters to maintain the increase in future years.
Local funding of public schools has taken on an outsized role in Kansas because of the Legislature’s continued unwillingness to spend enough money to adequately educate the state’s children.
In a decision last week, a panel of judges in Shawnee County District Court said more state money was needed for schools. It accurately criticized the reliance on local money to pay basic expenses, such as teacher salaries. Local option budgets were originally intended to allow taxpayers to decide whether they wanted to fund optional programs.
The judicial panel’s decision raised the question of whether use of local option money for basic expenses violated the state’s constitutional responsibility to fund schools. That question, as well as the larger matter of adequate education funding, will be hashed out in the courts and the Legislature over the next couple of years. In the midst of a complex and tenuous situation, Johnson County voters should seize the opportunity to provide a measure of security for their districts.
Shawnee Mission: The school board in May 2014 authorized raising its local option budget, bringing in an additional $3.6 million for the current school year budget. Much of that increase was used to boost teacher pay for the first time in five years.
The increase was accompanied by a drop in the district’s mill levy, and did not result in higher tax bills. Property taxes are not expected to increase if voters make the new threshold permanent, which they should.
Olathe: Voters should approve the request to make an increase in the local option budget permanent. The school board in August raised the amount the district can use in local funds to 33 percent, gaining about $4 million. Failure to approve the request would mean the loss of those funds next year. Because of a drop in the mill levy, residents are not expected to see a tax increase if the issue passes.
Blue Valley: Like the two other large districts, Blue Valley already has raised its local option budget to the 33 percent limit, resulting in about $3 million more dollars, also without a property tax increase. The money was used to give most teachers a 2 percent raise. Voters should approve the measure to continue the increase.
De Soto: Thanks in part to the same Kansas school funding law that authorizes the local option budget increases, De Soto was able to decrease its property tax rate by 8 mills this year. Even if voters make the local funding increase permanent, the average homeowner will pay less in property taxes. There appears to be no downside to a yes vote, which will enable the district to potentially spend an extra $1.1 million a year.
Gardner Edgerton: Currently this district uses its local taxing authority to raise 30 percent of its general fund. Voters should agree to the request to raise that to 33 percent, which would bring the district about $1 million a year if needed. Because of the new school financing law and other factors, Gardner Edgerton recently reduced its tax rate by about 13 percent. Approval of the local option budget isn’t expected to change that.