816 North

School district levies mostly hold steady

On the surface, it looks like good news for taxpayers in one of the northland’s largest school districts. For the sixth consecutive year, the North Kansas City district has kept its tax rate unchanged.

This despite the recession, with property values dropping steadily every year.

But this can’t go on indefinitely, say officials at the growing district. Soon, perhaps as early as next April, voters may be asked for a bond issue to solve some of the classroom space and deferred maintenance needs, which are reaching a critical point.

School districts throughout the state have set their final levies. In most cases taxing rates have not moved dramatically from the previous year. Some, like Park Hill and North Platte, have managed to drop by a fraction of a cent.

Credit state law and changing property values for the small fluctuations. When assessed property values go up, the state requires the levy to go down, to keep the revenue neutral. When values go down, school districts have the option of raising the levies.

In North Kansas City’s case, the school board managed not to raise the levy despite a continuing decline in property values, said Paul Harrell, chief financial officer for the district.

Property value in the district peaked in 2008, then dropped every year since. Today, values are at 2004 levels, he said. Meantime, the enrollment has been growing at the rate of 300 kids per year.

Several things have helped the district avoid raising taxes, Harrell said. The district received $18.4 million in federal stimulus money for three years, for instance. Also the growth in enrollment meant that the school got more money from the state funding formula.

The administration has made cuts in services and supplies to reduce its spending, he said. And it has borrowed from its own reserves.

However North Kansas City has now reached the tipping point, Harrell said. The buildings are filled to capacity, with only two empty classrooms in the district. Borrowing more from reserves isn’t an option, because it could reduce the district’s bond rating.

The district needs not only more space but also some major repairs such as roofing and parking lot resurfacing, leaders have said. The school board is expected to make a decision in January about whether to ask for a bond issue on the April ballot.

Meanwhile in the Platte County R-3 district, the levy increased by seven cents over last year. However, that increase is smaller than the 10-cent increase that would have been necessary because of falling property values, said Superintendent Michael Reik.

The district was able to take accounting action last year in its different funds so that the levy this year would not need to be as high, he said. It still has one of the lower tax rates in the metro area, he said.

Platte County R-3 also needs more classroom space, Reik said. The district asked voters for a 60-cent increase for a new elementary school and additional classroom space, but it was rejected. The board is now deciding whether to put the issue before voters again on next year’s ballot.