The uncertainty of the state’s financial situation and how it will affect K-12 funding for the next few years should make Lawrence school officials rethink a couple of recent spending decisions.
This doesn’t look like the right time to be depleting district reserves and making new spending commitments.
Last month, the Lawrence school board voted to expand full-day kindergarten to four more district schools and add 21 new teachers to the district so that class sizes could be reduced. Those two moves, along with reinstating the district’s position for director of instruction and adding a program to help more middle-of-the-road students pursue higher education, are estimated to cost about $2 million next year.
School officials said the cost could be covered by using funds the district expects to receive as a result of increased enrollment and by using cash reserves that have built up over the past couple of years from state funding the district received for at-risk programs. Even at the time the additional spending was approved, district leaders conceded that the new programs couldn’t be sustained for more than two or three years using the current funding sources. “We can’t sustain this without additional dollars from the Legislature,” said Superintendent Rick Doll.
The chances of the district receiving additional dollars or even the same number of dollars from the state in the next few years has perhaps never been more in doubt. The budget passed by the Legislature for next year includes a small increase in per-pupil funding but only after a heated battle. Those budget battles will get much worse if the tax cuts signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday don’t produce the kind of economic boon predicted by its proponents. The governor already has supported plans to push more responsibility for funding K-12 schools onto local property taxes, and that pressure is likely to increase if the state experiences revenue shortfalls.
That not only makes it likely that the Lawrence district will need its reserve funds for basic operations in the next few years, it also makes it a questionable time to ask voters to approve a bond issue for elementary school improvements, as the board discussed Monday. Even if the bond issue itself could be paid off without increasing taxes, it would add to the district’s overall financial burden and, therefore, to the property tax burden of district patrons.
All of the initiatives being considered by board members — all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, elementary school improvements — certainly are worthwhile goals. It’s also true that officials always should be looking for ways to make the district better. However, with the current financial uncertainty hanging over the state, this is a time to be conservative about spending and perhaps hang on to the reserves that could help the district weather a possible financial storm.