Maintenance projects may not be the most exciting way to spend the Lawrence school district's money, but putting off needed improvements and repairs is a dangerous policy.
Just ask the six universities governed by the Kansas Board of Regents.
At their meeting Monday night, members of the Lawrence school board looked at ways to maximize the impact of the maintenance money available to them. By using funds left over from two school bond issues approved in 1998 and 2005 and taking advantage of financing available for projects that contribute to energy conservation the district may be able to stretch next year's $2.5 million capital outlay budget to about $6 million.
That would allow the district to tackle much-needed repairs to rest rooms, fire alarms, security systems, roofs and water lines. The projects may not be flashy but, over the long haul, they will keep the district's buildings clean, safe and functional. Spending money on those projects now will protect the important investment district taxpayers have made in school facilities.
But, as Sue Morgan, Lawrence board president, pointed out, "It kills you when doing the domestic water supply into a building is going to cost about half a million dollars."
It's true that new water lines don't give district officials much to point to with pride as they walk through their school buildings, but the state of Kansas is learning through hard experience what happens when there isn't enough investment in ongoing maintenance at the state's universities.
The Board of Regents reported earlier this month that $727 million now is needed to deal with "deferred maintenance" at the six state universities; $209 million of that is at Kansas University. Regents and university officials say the situation has been caused by lagging state support for its universities. To address the needs, the regents asked legislators this year to approve a 1-mill property tax and a one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax for 10 years to catch up on maintenance.
The regents, of course, have a point about declining state support for its universities. Although appropriations have increased in recent years, they haven't kept up with rising university budgets. In 1985, the state covered 49 percent of the state universities' operating expenditures. By 2005, the state's contribution had dropped to 29 percent.
Even with that decline, however, it seems wrong to endanger state-owned buildings and infrastructure by delaying critical maintenance. How would taxpayers in the Lawrence school district respond if the district built new schools but neglected to allocate enough of its budget to cover needed maintenance then asked voters to pay additional sales tax to bail the district out?
Lawrence and other K-12 school districts throughout the state have been through some years of lean state funding in the last decade and were forced to make difficult cuts in staffing and programs. What if they had simply decided to maintain staff and programs and allow buildings to deteriorate instead?
To protect the state's investment in its university campuses, it probably now will be necessary to dedicate some additional money to maintenance projects, but it is good to see other governmental entities, such as the Lawrence school district, showing they can be better stewards of tax-supported property.