Supt. Rick Doll can see the days of confusion coming.
As homes get built on the beautiful hillsides near Rock Chalk Park in West Lawrence, many of the homes will be within eyesight of Free State High School or Langston Hughes Elementary School. But the children in those homes won’t be able to attend those Lawrence public schools.
As the city grows to the northwest, it's exiting the Lawrence public school district and entering the Perry-Lecompton school district. That means students in those houses will be making the 15-minute cross-country trip to either Lecompton in northern Douglas County or Perry in southern Jefferson County to go to school.
If you think you can simply fill out some paperwork and get permission for your student to come to a Lawrence school, think again, Doll said.
“We have no plans to accommodate lots of kids who don’t live in our school district,” Doll said. “We just feel like we can’t do that.”
Perry-Lecompton officials, however, are eager and ready to start serving students from the city limits of Lawrence.
“Even though proximity-wise, they are farther away from what they would be from Free State or Langston Hughes, we will bring our buses to their front doors and bring them to our schools,” said Denis Yoder, superintendent for Perry-Lecompton, a 4-A district that has about 800 students. “Other districts can’t do that.”
USD 497 District Map ( .PDF )
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are expected to approve one of the first major residential developments that will be both in the Lawrence city limits and the Perry-Lecompton school district. Commissioners are being asked to approve a 900-unit apartment complex called The Links, on property just east of Rock Chalk Park.
The Arkansas-based development group for The Links said it does not anticipate many school-age children living in the apartment complex. But both Doll and Yoder are confident that other traditional housing developments soon will happen in the area. School district lines are jagged in the area, so potential homebuyers will have to do careful research to determine what school district they are buying into. Generally, the property east of the South Lawrence Trafficway and north of the Rock Chalk Park property is in the Perry-Lecompton district. That equates to hundreds of acres of property that is largely undeveloped and very well situated.
“It is going to be a very convenient place to live with the turnpike and the South Lawrence Trafficway so nearby,” Yoder said. “We think there is a real good possibility that the area is going to take off in the future.”
Yoder said real estate developers have approached the district about ceding that territory to the Lawrence school district.
“Of course, there is no reason we would do that,” Yoder said.
The Perry-Lecompton district has seen enrollment declines in previous years. The district wants the growth that Lawrence housing could provide. The district recently contracted with Kansas University to produce a promotional video that can be used to show off the district’s facilities to developers, contractors and future home buyers.
“We think if we can get their attention enough to come through our facilities, they will be very pleased,” Yoder said.
The Lawrence school district does have a process where out-of-district students can apply to attend a Lawrence school. But Doll said the district tries to use it on a limited basis. For 2014, only 104 out-of-district students are part of the district, which has about 10,000 students overall.
Doll said he cannot recommend a significant expansion of the out-of-district program because it would create serious taxpayer equity problems. That’s because school districts receive their tax dollars in basically two ways. The largest amount comes in the form of a per-pupil payment from the state. When an out-of-district student comes to Lawrence, the Lawrence district does get the per-pupil payment. That pays for teacher salaries, and other such operational expenses.
But when the district goes to build a new school or undertake other such capital and technology projects, it relies on the growth of the district’s tax base to fund those operations. When new homes are built in the Perry-Lecompton district, the tax dollars generated by those new homes will stay with the Perry-Lecompton district, regardless of whether the students go to the Lawrence schools.
That would create a scenario where students living in the Perry-Lecompton district would be creating demand for new schools and capital improvements in the Lawrence district, but their parents would not be paying taxes to support those improvements.
“That would appear to be unfair to our Lawrence taxpayers,” Doll said.
The city’s decision to promote growth to the northwest will have tax consequences for the district. A good example is the apartment complex up for approval on Tuesday. If it were in the Lawrence school district it would have added at least another $35,000 a year to the school district’s budget. Its overall impact on the budget likely would have been larger, but it's difficult to accurately predict because of the complexities of school finance formulas. But since the project is in the Perry-Lecompton district, it is easy for Lawrence officials to comprehend: The Lawrence district won’t get any taxes from the project.
All of the new Rock Chalk Park development also is in the Perry-Lecompton district, cut city commissioners have granted the project a 100 percent property tax abatement. Once development jumps to the west side of the South Lawrence Trafficway, growth once again will be back in the Lawrence school district. But for the Lawrence school district to take full advantage of Lawrence’s future growth, district leaders need to hope that development activity turns to south Lawrence. That’s the area where the largest amount of undeveloped ground lies in the Lawrence school district.
Doll said developers have asked him to advocate for change in school district boundaries to capture the northwest area, but he has no plans to do so.
“We’re not going to get into the politics of that,” Doll said.
Instead, he’s recommending that future homebuyers make sure they understand what school district they are located in.
“I know it is going to seem weird that you can see the school, but you can’t attend it,” Doll said. “But we’re not going to be accommodating hundreds of kids from that area. If that area explodes to the north of our boundary, people need to understand that is not us.”