Monday night, local taxpayers learned they will pay up to 57.9 mills of property tax to support the Lawrence school district next year, but they learned almost nothing about the details of how that money will be spent.
Compared to the budget process followed both by Douglas County and the City of Lawrence, it feels like the school district is getting the cart before the horse. The local mill levy to support schools is far greater than the estimated mill levies of the city and county — 29.9 mills and 35.7 mills, respectively — but the process for arriving at the annual school district budget is far less detailed, or at least far less public, than the process used by the other two entities.
The school district’s process appears to meet all the legal requirements, but it leaves much to be desired when it comes to public transparency and involvement. Before the city and county approve a budget for publication, they issue detailed budget plans and hold public study sessions, at which every dollar of their spending can be — and usually is — scrutinized. By comparison, only a broad outline of school spending was made available — to either the public or school board members — before the budget was approved Monday night for publication.
The published budget sets a maximum expenditure for the district; that amount can be reduced but not exceeded before final passage.
School district officials say more details will be released before the public hearing on the budget on Aug. 12. If those details followed the standard set by the city and county, district taxpayers would be able to see, for instance, the estimated staffing numbers at individual schools. We understand that the district needs some flexibility to deal with unexpected enrollment shifts, but district patrons also should be able to express their concerns about budget decisions that affect individual schools and programs. They can’t do that unless they have the information in a timely manner.
The school district levies by far the largest portion of the local property tax, just a few mills short of the city and county levies combined. That includes the maximum local option budget levy allowed by law, representing an amount equal to 31 percent of the district’s general fund, or about $24 million.
When the district is asking local taxpayers for that kind of support, it’s not enough to use a budget process that simply fulfills the legal requirements. Taxpayers deserve a full accounting of how that money will be spent — presented in time for them to voice their approval or objection to those plans.