Archive for Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Legislature asked to fix school-finance quirk

Lawrence district may be forced to raise taxes or lose funding

January 23, 2007


— Unless the Legislature acts quickly, Lawrence taxpayers may be asked to dig deeper in their pockets for a public school tax increase that school officials say they don't want.


Welcome to what some are calling the unintended consequences of the new school finance legislation.

Lawrence school officials came to the Capitol on Monday urging lawmakers to change a quirk in the school law and to do it quickly.

Under the new finance formula, 18 districts, including Lawrence, have been able to raise local taxes to get extra funds to offset the higher cost of living in those districts.

The Lawrence school district receives $1.275 million in those funds, which it uses for teacher salaries and general school programs.

But in order to maintain those revenues, under the state law, the district also must increase taxes again next year so that it will be at the maximum allowed level of local revenues to supplement education funding.

School officials told the Senate Education Committee that they don't want to raise taxes again. But they need to maintain access to the $1.275 million in cost-of-living funds.

To maintain those funds, the school district must ask for voter approval of another tax increase, perhaps as early as April 3 during the general election. If voters reject the tax increase, the district also would lose the $1.275 million stream of revenue that it already has built into its budget, officials said.

Sue Morgan, president of the Lawrence school board, asked the committee to fast-track new legislation - Senate Bill 69 - that would eliminate the requirement that school districts get to that maximum level of local spending in order to access the cost-of-living funds.

"The risk of losing funding, the additional expenses and the erosion of community relations could all be avoided by expedited legislative action in this matter," Morgan said.

Losing the funding "would be a huge step backward for students and our schools," said Jeannie Robinson, a parent with children in the district.

Morgan said the Lawrence school district needs to know by Feb. 12 if it has to put the issue on the April 3 ballot. To have a special election on a different date would cost $35,000 to $40,000, she said.

Sen. Jean Kurtis Schodorf, R-Wichita and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the panel probably would work on the bill later this week or early next week.

Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, who is on the committee, said he didn't know if the Legislature could act in that short period of time because of the complexity and politics of the issue.

"We do need to fix it," Pine said. "I don't think it was the intent of the Legislature to put the school district in that kind of a position."

But the issue is further clouded by politics.

Many school districts have opposed the formation of the cost-of-living adjustment for the 18 districts and may try to use the proposed legislation to change that system.


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