Way cleared for possible tax increase

? In dismissing the school finance lawsuit Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court also cleared the way for a provision that would allow some school districts, including Lawrence, to increase local property taxes because of the high cost of living.

In Lawrence, that could mean an approximate $2 million tax increase that might be used to increase teacher salaries.

“I suppose the next step is to start having discussions as soon as Monday night” with the school board, Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman said.

When that cost-of-living provision was approved by the Legislature in 2005, it would have helped 17 school districts, including Lawrence, raise local property taxes and dedicate those funds to increasing teacher salaries.

They became known as the “Sweet 17.” The group has since evolved into the “Sweet 18” with the addition of one school district, and the Legislature has changed the law to let districts spend the funds any way they wanted.

Now that the court has put the cost-of-living weighting in effect, will Lawrence school leaders increase property taxes for teacher salaries?

Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman said he wasn’t sure.

To be in the “Sweet 18,” a district’s average assessed home valuation has to be more than 25 percent of the state average. Supporters of the provision said teachers should be paid more in districts that have higher housing costs.

Weseman said Lawrence would have qualified in 2003 but not in 2005.

“It is not a levy that is consistent or sustainable, and (it) can go away year to year,” Weseman said. Relying on funds that may not be available in the next year is a big problem, he said.

Dale Dennis, state deputy education commissioner, checked to see which school districts could take advantage of the cost-of-living weighting. Initially, Dennis has come up with 18 school districts including Lawrence, several other districts in northeast Kansas, Manhattan and Wichita suburbs.

“We were kind of surprised on that factor,” Dennis said of the court’s decision to lift its stay of the provision.

He said once it is determined which districts qualify for the increased tax authority, it would take some quick work to get it in place.

“You have to adopt a resolution, publish it for 30 days,” Dennis said. “You’d really have to hurry to do that.”

Lawrence teachers and the school district are still negotiating a contract.

For the Lawrence school district to take advantage of the new provision, it would have to increase its tax levy based on the local option budget another 3 percent. Then it could bump it another 4.37 percent to allow for the new cost-of-living tax increase.

All these proposals would require board approval and be subject to a protest petition that could force an election.

“That’s the room the Legislature gave the school board,” Weseman said. “They didn’t do much else.”