Archive for Sunday, November 30, 2003

School sales tax faces opposition

November 30, 2003


Lawrence businessman Shlomo Ginsburg said he's ready to hit the "no sale" button on a proposed sales tax for public schools in Douglas County.

The Lawrence school district is working toward a vote in 2004 on a half-cent increase in the county's sales tax. If approved by voters, it would pump $5.8 million annually into seven school districts serving Douglas County students.

"I'm opposed to any changes -- except lowering the sales tax," said Ginsburg, who has operated a computer consulting business for 15 years in Lawrence. "Sales taxes ... really hurt the businesses more than people think."

School boards in Lawrence, Eudora and Baldwin endorsed a sales tax increase for education. The consensus reflects the pressure that districts feel to meet rising operational costs at a time the Kansas Legislature appears unwilling to allocate more state funding to public schools.

Lawrence schools Supt. Randy Weseman said he was aware of resistance to higher taxes. It's possible Douglas County taxpayers will demand districts live within their means, he said.

"That may be the directive you get," Weseman recently told Lawrence school board members. "It isn't what you want to hear. That may be what they tell you."

He'll convene a committee soon to develop an outline for dividing Lawrence's slice of an expanded countywide sales tax. The district's share could be $4.1 million a year.

Representatives of the Lawrence business community previously raised red flags about new taxes.

"I'd have reservations that a sales tax referendum can make it," said Larry McElwain, chairman of the chamber's board.

Sue Morgan, Lawrence board member, said voters should reserve judgment on a sales tax for education until after studying options for spending the new revenue. It might be used to trim student fees, offer all-day kindergarten or bolster after-school programs.

The consequences of not improving school budgets also should be weighed, Morgan said.

Without relief from the Kansas Legislature or voters in Douglas County, Morgan said the Lawrence district is expected to face more than $1 million in cuts for the 2004-2005 school year.

Will sixth-grade band and orchestra be dropped? Nursing services trimmed? Sports programs scaled back?

"You may have to make a decision that is politically unpopular but educationally sound," Weseman said.

A half-cent increase in the Douglas County sales tax would raise approximately $5.8 million annually for public schools, based on 2002 sales-tax revenue reports.It would be divided among districts this way: Lawrence, $4.1 million; Baldwin, $553,000; Eudora, $506,000; Perry-Lecompton, Wellsville, Shawnee Heights, Santa Fe Trail and West Franklin sharing $659,000.

For the Douglas County Commission to put a sales tax increase on the ballot, the 2004 Legislature must first grant its permission. Local legislators have questioned whether their colleagues in Topeka would let a local tax for schools on a ballot, especially if a statewide sales tax increase is proposed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

A Douglas County sales tax for education would be modeled after Johnson County's quarter-cent tax adopted last year. It's designed to raise $15 million annually for use by six school districts but expire in three years.

In addition to political obstacles at the state and local levels, the challenge for sales-tax proponents will be to convince people like Ginsburg there's educational merit to adopting Johnson County's approach.

"To be honest with you," Ginsburg said, "if we're talking about the school district, I don't think $5 million will make a difference in the education level in this district."

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