Local option budget
Lawrence school board members say if voters give them authority to raise an extra $679,000 in Tuesday's election, it won't be enough to close the district's teacher-salary gap with area districts.
But they are asking for the extra money because it is their only avenue to bring more funds to the table as they plan the 2008-2009 budget and negotiate raises for teachers and other staffers.
"We have to play the game," said Linda Robinson, school board president. "This is the situation and the plan that (the Legislature) established. We have to participate in this plan, or I don't think we would be doing our prudent responsibility as elected officials."
From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, polls will be open as district patrons decide whether the school board can increase its local-option budget by 1 percent. If the election is successful, board members say, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay about $13.80 additional each year in property taxes - or $1.15 a month.
Local residents opposed to the LOB increase have said the election is poorly timed, considering the economy's situation, and they fear, in particular, that senior citizens who live on fixed incomes will be hit hardest by a property tax increase.
"We are not opposed to increased teacher salaries, but better sources of revenue need to be used," said Craig Sundell, president of Kansans for Common Sense and Accountability.
Administrators expect that if the LOB increase passes, board members will have $1.7 million to $1.8 million in new unrestricted funding to spend on salaries and, possibly, to help aid other programs. Among those programs is WRAP, which places Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center clinical social workers in some schools.
District officials say it's difficult to determine the exact financial impact a successful election would have on staffers.
Simply dividing the $1.8 million by the 1,750 district employees averages to $1,028 per employee, or about $85 extra per month before taxes. Without the LOB increase, district officials say they would have only $1 million to $1.1 million in state funds to use for staff salary increases.
But the process for figuring raises doesn't work that way. First, the school board negotiates a contract with the Lawrence Education Association, which represents the teachers.
Teachers are paid according to a salary schedule that includes their years in the district and the degrees they hold. Each year, the two sides negotiate how much extra money to add into that pool of funds to be distributed.
Last year, they settled on a 3.28 percent increase by adding $1.2 million to the schedule. The board waits to decide on raises for classified staff and administrators until settling with the teachers.
Last year, board members also gave a 3.28 percent raise to the classified and administrative pools. The board gave Superintendent Randy Weseman a 3 percent raise.
The LEA has supported the LOB increase, and LEA President Adela Solis, a Cordley School teacher, has said the district needs to improve teacher salaries because even with last year's increase, the district dropped in statewide rankings, according to Kansas National Education Association data.
"Everything that we can put in that pool for salaries will help," Solis said.
Robinson said that based on population and tax base, Lawrence likely won't compete dollar-for-dollar with Johnson County districts.
"You can at least be within a competitive range," she said.
Robinson also said not getting the LOB increase would mean board members would likely have to start cutting programs to fund raises.
They expect they could be forced to do some of that next year because under a legislative plan, Lawrence would get about $500,000 more in unrestricted funds in state aid.
The district is people-intensive; 83 percent of its general fund and LOB pays for salaries and benefits.
"The lion's share of any new money we get always goes to salaries," Robinson said.
But it's also an unusual situation to ask voters for the authority to raise money without those voters knowing specifically how the funds will be spent.
The Kansas Legislature recently changed school finance law requiring local districts to have an election to increase their local-option budget. Before, the board could increase the LOB to a certain point without a public vote, as long as no protest petition was filed.
The state limits school districts' budgets, and also does not allow them to spend capital outlay or bond and interest funds on salaries.
"It's unfortunate that property tax is the only vehicle available to us," Solis said.
Weseman has said that even if the election is successful, staff members likely would see a pay increase of no more than 3 percent.
Robinson predicted districts across the state would struggle with budget issues again next year because of cost increases.
"(The LOB increase) doesn't seem like a lot, and it seems like a peculiar thing to do. It's basically just buying a little time to hedge your bets against the inevitable," she said.