At separate meetings last Monday, members of the Lawrence school board endorsed two initiatives. One was to seek a half-cent countywide sales tax to support schools; the other was to form a task force to study the possibility of establishing a high-tech vocational training center in Lawrence.
Neither the ideas nor the meetings were connected on Monday, but perhaps tying the two concepts together would be a winning combination for the district.
The main impetus behind the sales tax initiative is the need for new revenue in the school district budget to offset cuts in funding from the state. If the governor and Kansas Legislature fail to bolster the budget for K-12 education next year, local school officials predict dire consequences. The district has managed to maintain most of its services in spite of cuts in recent years, but if more funding is not forthcoming, officials say students and the community will start to really feel the pain of cuts which may result in larger classes and fewer extra-curricular activities.
The sales tax proposal is a tough sell. Because Douglas County has exhausted its sales tax authority, it would have to seek the state's permission to levy the additional half cent. Local legislators say the chances of gaining such approval are virtually zero.
The district might also consider a citywide tax, which wouldn't require state approval, but key groups are less-than-enthusiastic about the proposal. The local teachers union would want to know how the tax revenue would be spent (presumably they are interested in whether any of it would go for salaries), and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce is worried about the effect of a sales tax on local businesses.
But what if at least a portion of the sales tax was committed to the development of a technical training center? The chamber of commerce already has voiced support for such an initiative which could provide the kind of skilled manufacturing and technical employees that are in demand for both existing businesses and firms the chamber might try to attract to Lawrence.
Additional technical training programs probably also would be popular with school district patrons. One of the criticisms of the Lawrence district is that it concentrates on college-bound students and doesn't provide solid training for the rest. Even school officials concede that this is an area where the district has lagged. A public-private partnership, perhaps assisted by some local tax funds, might be able to provide high school students or recent graduates the training they need to become marketable employees in the high-tech ventures Lawrence wants to attract.
It's something to think about. Maybe the state will step up and provide adequate funding for K-12 education next year. Whether it does or not, the chances of passing a local sales tax to shoulder that responsibility seem slim. That means the community may need to get creative in its efforts to enhance educational opportunities for local students. A plan that includes new technical training programs might be one way to do that.