Lawrence schools, Douglas County prepare for first mail-ballot election

After Jan. 7, about 53,000 registered voters in Lawrence can expect to find envelopes in their mailboxes from the Lawrence school district.

School officials, who are seeking to recoup about $1.4 million of funding by keeping the local option budget at its current level, hope residents don’t mistake the envelopes for junk mail.

Lawrence schools Superintendent Rick Doll

“I’m always nervous, so I don’t consider (the election) to be a shoo-in at all,” Superintendent Rick Doll said.

The school district and the Douglas County Clerk’s office are preparing for the county’s first ever mail-ballot election, which will determine whether the district can maintain its local option budget — a proposition that would not result in a mill levy increase.

“It’s critical to our operating,” Doll said. “We’re not asking for more (money). We just want to continue to do what we’re doing.”

A local option budget represents funding that is raised by local property taxes for school districts. The size of a district’s local option budget can be no larger than 33 percent (the maximum was 31 percent until a year ago) of its general operating fund, which in Lawrence’s case is about $72.2 million.

The election over the local option budget stems from a new law the Legislature passed in response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling. The law changed how state funding for schools is calculated. The biggest blow to Lawrence, Doll explained, is that students enrolled in virtual schools would no longer count toward a district’s official enrollment.

That and other factors resulted in an about $1.8 million loss in funding for the Lawrence district.

However, the state then created a path for districts across the state to recoup at least some of those lost funds. It allowed districts, for one year only, to raise their local option budgets from 31 percent to 33 percent by vote of their school boards. In September, the Lawrence school board did just that, effectively recovering $1.4 million without raising the mill levy.

But if a district wants to keep its local option budget at 33 percent beyond year one — in Lawrence’s case, retaining that $1.4 million every year — it needs the approval of registered voters living within the district. And it must be done by mail, at least 90 days before or after any other elections on the calendar.

So here Lawrence is, along with Olathe, Shawnee Mission, De Soto and other districts putting the issue up to voters at virtually the same time.

At a cost of $100,000, the Lawrence district will mail the ballots to registered voters Jan. 7. Using a postage-paid envelope that’s included, voters must return, not postmark, their ballots to the clerk’s office by noon Jan. 27.

Anyone living within the district boundary who is not registered to vote must do so by Jan. 6 to participate.

To get voters ready, Doll and other district officials are doing all they can to spread the word.

Doll expects to make about 40 public appearances, at school site councils and other community groups, to explain the election. The district is preparing to mail voters information on the election days before the ballots are released. And the district’s automated phone and email system is at the ready for additional reminders.

Although the issue at hand is only about maintaining the local option budget at its current level, with no tax increase in play (the mill levy would decrease if the election failed, however), officials have cautioned themselves from thinking the election is a gimme.

Doll and district spokesperson Julie Boyle said voter apathy, general anti-tax sentiments, unfamiliarity with mail-in elections and all the distractions that come with the holiday season have kept them on their toes.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said mail-in elections have a record of drawing better turnout than elections that force voters to head to the polls.

“It’s pretty common in other counties,” Shew said. “Across the state, and in other states, mail-ballot elections increase turnout considerably. So we anticipate, what could have been a 14, 15 percent turnout, could easily be a 25, 30 percent turnout.”

The $1.4 million at stake, Doll said, is equivalent to 25 teachers’ salaries. He said losing that money could result in larger class sizes, a decline in support staff or fewer resources available for acquiring laptops and other kinds of technology.