Supporters have uttered a familiar line in trying to drum up support before the April 1 Lawrence school district local-option budget election.
They say the $679,000 is needed to recruit and retain teachers who may otherwise be wooed by Johnson County school districts, such as Shawnee Mission, Olathe and Blue Valley.
According to Kansas State Department of Education statistics, Lawrence's average teacher salary in 2006-07 was $48,348, including benefits and supplemental salaries. In comparison, average teacher pay was $59,216 in Shawnee Mission, $56,678 in Blue Valley and $52,739 in Olathe.
Though after three years of raises in Lawrence to try to catch up on teacher salaries, the district lost ground after last year's average 3.28 percent raise, say leaders of the district's teachers group, the Lawrence Education Association.
They cite Kansas National Education Association data that has Lawrence dropping from 52nd to 73rd with benefits and supplemental compensation included, and from 41st to 59th without the benefits.
"I know that by the fact we did drop in state rankings, that is not going to help," said LEA president Adela Solis, a Cordley School teacher.
School board members are seeking the authority from voters to raise the extra money from the local-option budget, or LOB, which is funded by local property taxes. If successful, the $679,000 would allow school board negotiators to make a higher salary raise offer to the LEA during contract negotiations. The new money could also help fund the WRAP program, which places clinical social workers from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in some schools.
School districts are restricted by state law on how much they can tax and on how they can spend funds, such as for staff salaries versus building and capital costs. Administrators expect to receive an additional $2.1 million in funds from the state for next year, but about half is earmarked for certain purposes, such as special education.
Lawrence Superintendent Randy Weseman said it's hard to compare Lawrence's tax base with Johnson County's. Still, Lawrence also offers things other communities don't, such as being home to Kansas University, he said.
"Lawrence being unique, we have been able to hang in there with quality teachers and staff. ... We have a quality-of-life issue that appeals to people," Weseman said.
Lawrence school board member Craig Grant said one reason he voted to put the LOB question on the ballot was that Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley had already approved to go to the maximum LOB allowed, which is 31 percent of a district's state general fund.
Lawrence is seeking to go from 30 percent to 31 percent through the election. Johnson County districts have also benefited from an economic development county sales tax, which is set to expire at the end of this year.
One question is how the comparison between Lawrence and area districts translates into student achievement. Weseman said Lawrence has strong academic tradition and also beats the state average on assessment scores, although some areas need improvement.
According to state education department data from 2006-2007, Lawrence - except for fifth-grade reading when it beat Shawnee Mission - had a lower percentage of students score proficiently in math and reading at Blue Valley, Olathe and Shawnee Mission at three different grade levels.
Solis, citing KNEA figures, said she's concerned that Lawrence has fallen behind many other area districts in certain levels of the salary schedule, which determines teacher pay based on experience and education.
For Lawrence property owners, a successful election could mean a tax increase - one of about $14 more per year for the owner of a $200,000 home.
Some say they want the district to be more efficient because property taxes place an unfair burden on older residents.
"I think there are much better ways at doing it than this," said Craig Sundell, of Kansans for Common Sense and Accountability, a political action committee.
Weseman said it might be difficult to persuade some voters to approve the measure because a property tax increase can be burdensome to residential homeowners. The LOB increase would equate to a 0.48 mill increase. A mill is $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.
"When that's the only tool we have, you have to ask," Weseman said.
But he also said that even if the April 1 vote were successful, it wouldn't guarantee a net property tax increase because the LOB increase is only one piece of the district's budget puzzle.
Last summer, after 2007-2008 budget discussions began about a 3.5 mill increase, Weseman recommended offsetting that increase by lowering other levies, the bond-and-interest and the capital outlay fund, mostly because the 2005 bond projects were bid under budget.
"There's no guarantees at this point, but the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," he said.
As advance voting began last week, board members have tried to provide information to parents about the election. The LEA has also supported the LOB increase.
Grant said as about 40 percent of the district's work force becomes eligible for retirement in 12 to 14 years, salaries will remain a hot issue.
"You want to be able to replace them with a mix of young teachers and veteran teachers," he said. "And in order to attract those teachers to the district and retain them, it's going to take us to have a competitive salary situation."
Solis said teacher retention is also important based on the cost of bringing new teachers up to speed.
"It's expensive," she said. "Though salaries for new teachers may not be expensive, training them and getting them up to par with what's going on educationally ... that all costs money."