Guest Commentary

KC school districts concerned about pre-K sales tax proposal

Improving and expanding early childhood education is vitally important to the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City. Our 32 member districts strongly support increased services for our youngest learners and appreciate being able to review the pre-kindergarten tax plan created by Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ office.

In addition, our organization is thankful for the opportunity to work with the petitioners and the mayor to seek better understanding and reasonable compromise. Although the mayor’s office has collaborated on some issues, we remain concerned about several unresolved items. For the sake of our more than 177,000 students, we believe our districts should have been involved with the mayor’s team in the plan’s original design.

All our districts provide pre-kindergarten programs and share a commitment to young children. With this commitment in mind, we are sharing our three main concerns with the mayor’s plan — governance, constitutionality and revenue — while also providing solutions.

▪ Governance: The current plan essentially removes locally-elected boards of education from any significant governance role. All but two of our 14 districts involved in the proposal educate students from multiple municipalities other than Kansas City. Locally-elected school boards are charged by state statute with making “rules and regulations for the organization, grading and government in the school district.” These statutes do not assign responsibilities for the districts’ governance to a tax board or other entity — as would be the case in the mayor’s plan.

▪ Constitutionality: The current tax proposal would provide funding for private sectarian and parochial schools, in direct conflict with Missouri Constitution Article IX, which specifically restricts public funding for any “institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination.”

▪ Revenue: In addition to the issue of public funding being diverted to private schools via vouchers, we are concerned about the actual amount of revenue going to students, as well as the method of taxation. According to the mayor’s plan, only 25 to 30 percent of the approximately $30 million in sales tax revenue would be spent for direct services to children during the first three years. We also agree with other organizations that have expressed concerns about the regressive nature of a sales tax, which disproportionately impacts those least able to pay.

These issues face not only the district’s superintendents attending the meetings with the mayor and the petitioners; they are also vitally important to the families of the 32 districts represented by our organization. Our districts have worked diligently toward a reasonable compromise, but do not believe the current plan is right for our districts and, more importantly, for our children.

Our recommendation to the mayor is for all parties to come together to support property tax initiatives for individual local school districts, if those districts choose this method of revenue. In addition, we support the mayor and our school districts collaborating to pursue a statewide funding method for expansion of early childhood education.

Targeted property tax initiatives and state funding would allow the residents of each school district to prioritize their own needs and address these with community-based plans for expansion of early learning programs, along with other educational opportunities for students. In terms of a statewide solution, we are already working to help draft a bill in the General Assembly to provide early childhood funding through the Missouri Foundation Formula.

Each of the 14 school districts within Kansas City’s limits has agreed that these options are the best and most equitable methods for expanding pre-kindergarten education for all. Our students are our top priority. At the same time, we must protect the role of our local boards of education to nurture and support their students and to represent the desires of citizens living within multiple communities.

It is inaccurate and unfortunate to characterize our lack of support for this plan as a lack of concern for children. Nothing could be further from the truth. We seek fair and effective solutions for all students.

Gayden Carruth is executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City.