When on Saturday, May 31, the Lawrence Journal-World front-paged the news of a request for the city to pay $1.4 million to take over the Lawrence school district's extracurricular sports program, I thought it a possible hoax or joke.
Surely, given the many months of never-ending news media reports of dire financial straits at the school, city, county, state and national levels, nobody would make such a costly request? Especially when it stated the supporter has four children playing the entire range of such sports at Free State High School, including golf. Golf? Why not polo or skydiving? I'd say the supporter has been receiving a huge bargain for his tax dollars. Out-of-work teachers must love this news!
Then on Monday, June 2, I learned the request would be on the City Commission meeting agenda for the next night. Remarkable! Most unusual for a request to make such speedy progress. Sadly, the public attendance was low -- no surprise considering the short notice. Silly me! I take my responsibilities as a citizen and a director of the Douglas County Property Owners Assn. seriously -- a small effort if it helps avoid waste of taxpayers' money.
Some commissioners expressed the opinion that sports are the "hook" that captured students' interest in school. Wrong! It is dedicated, talented teachers earning and deserving the love and respect of students and parents that captures the young people's interest.
Let's not push the panic button about "state of crisis" and "losing a generation" -- although we do risk losing many young people who go, and will continue to go, elsewhere to work and live because they cannot survive on the $7.50 an hour so prevalent in Lawrence. Then there's the other side of the coin: employers who would be delighted to pay more, if only they were not burdened by so many taxes, especially property taxes!
On June 5, the Journal-World published a thorough and provocative editorial on the subject of our city and school tax dilemmas. But, the big question is: How did we get into this financial mess? What to do to get out of it?
As a nation, from big cities on down to the smallest village, it appears so many have been stricken by the "Oliver Twist" disease, always asking for more. Accompanied by the huge "I'm Entitled Brigade."
You should not blame it all on the Kansas Legislature or federal government. And, we do not need knee-jerk reactions such as "let's raise taxes" until we know more. Remember, bureaucrats love to hear that; they derive their power from tax dollars.
Both the city and county commissions should tread very carefully before even considering committing to pay more taxes for school sports and nursing programs. The commissions may risk facing lawsuits over questionable use of public funds. Just the cost of defending such lawsuits is more debt on the taxpayers' backs.
The current school board, time and time again, complained of lack of proper financing and claimed they had cut expenses to the very bone and were forced -- in despair -- to increase student fees and drop much of the free busing to schools, causing, in many cases, additional financial hardship to parents and other caregivers. Why not invite those people to a School Board Golf Tournament so you can explain your reasons for having a $1.4 million extracurricular sports program? How mean of us not to approve a mere $59 million bond issue.
There is the Lawrence Schools Foundation to provide private financial support, with certain limitations. And, take note, the schools are not the only educational game in town. Over the decades, the Lawrence Public Library has brought young and old worlds of knowledge, how-to books and videos, foreign languages, entertainment -- and for the asking! No fees to exclude the less fortunate because the City Commission allots a portion of our taxes for its operations, which, according to a recent Journal-World editorial, rates poorly in a recent survey of financial support by many cities.
And, what about the original city library given by Andrew Carnegie, and now sitting empty and moldering away at Ninth and Vermont streets -- which could be revitalized and used as the Lawrence Children's and Young Adults Library, with its own parking lot, easing the overcrowding in the main library and parking lot.
Here's to better times!
-- Gerry Hammond is a retired Lawrence resident and former vice president of planning and operations for the original Maupintour.