Close to half of the property taxes paid by Lawrence residents go to the Lawrence school district. That means local taxpayers should have more than a passing interest in the school district’s budget.
Unfortunately, the budget process followed by school district officials isn’t very conducive to meaningful budget input from the public or even members of the board.
On Monday, the Lawrence school board is scheduled to receive, discuss and approve for publication the district’s 2012-13 budget — all in one meeting. The board probably has some knowledge of what that budget will include, but according to an agenda memo from the district staff, the actual budget forms are still being compiled and won’t be available — even to board members — before Monday night. At that time, the administration will present budget information to the board, after which the board can discuss the budget and perhaps propose changes. However, they are expected to approve the budget for publication by the end of the meeting.
The budget that is published will set the maximum budget authority and property tax levies for the coming year. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the budget at a public hearing Aug. 13, but that will be after the budget is published when there is no opportunity for either the board — which has had one meeting to absorb the budget’s impact — or the public to add any funding.
Granted, given the current uncertainty about state funding for K-12 public schools, this probably isn’t the year to add more spending to the budget, but the fact that district administrators expect school board members to review and rubber-stamp the district’s budget in one meeting is troubling.
For instance, in some years, members of the board or public might want to fight to restore funding for a program that has been cut from the budget or provide funding for a new program. Even if board members or the public want to work to reduce the budget, why leave that discussion until after the budget has been published?
By contrast, both Lawrence and Douglas County administrators allow significant time for city and county commissioners to go over and perhaps hear public comments on their proposed budgets. City and county budget proposals are discussed in open meetings or study sessions and are completed and available to the public at least a week or two before commissioners approve them for publication.
Maybe there is something different about school budgeting that justifies the compressed time line that makes it difficult for taxpayers to have input, but it isn’t apparent. This is a big chunk of local tax money, and taxpayers deserve a more transparent budget process.