Lawrence district expects to get $4.4M from school finance bill, but property tax increase still a possibility

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence Public Schools district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

The Lawrence school district may get about $4.4 million in additional money from the recently approved school finance bill, but a local property tax increase is still in play for the district’s next budget.

On April 30, the Kansas Senate passed a measure that will phase in more than $500 million in additional state aid to public school districts over the next five years. Gov. Jeff Colyer signed the bill Monday. The measure increased per-pupil base state aid, which is currently $4,006, to $4,165 for the 2018-2019 school year.

Lawrence school board Vice President Jessica Beeson views the school finance bill as a long-overdue step in the right direction.

“It’s good the state is making motions to reinstate money they have been taking,” she said. “There’s some room for improvement, but it’s a positive thing.”

Lawrence school district residents, though, may still see a property tax increase as part of the next budget, which will be crafted this summer.

Kathy Johnson, district executive director of finance, said it was still too early to know what the school finance plan would mean to taxpayers.

The school district’s bond and interest fund is likely to see a mill levy increase when the board approves the 2018-2019 budget in August. The board decided last year to sell only half of the $87 million in bonds that voters approved last year to fund improvements to Lawrence and Free State high schools and the district’s four middle schools. The board did so to limit the amount of mill levy increase that would be required to fund the 2017-2018 budget.

The move, though, was a gamble when it comes to interest rates. The board approved the first $43.5 million bond sale at a 2.95 percent interest rate in September. In March, the U.S. Federal Reserve raised the prime interest rate a quarter-point to 1.75 percent and indicated two more increases were coming this year. Those increases are expected to spill over to the bond market.

The school funding bill is the Legislature’s answer to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in October that found then current levels of K-12 education constitutionally inadequate.

A Kansas Department of Education spreadsheet estimates that the Lawrence school district will receive from the new bill $2.17 million in additional general fund dollars from per-pupil state aid in 2018-2019 and $1.26 million in added special education funding, for a total of $3.44 million.

Johnson said her best current estimate was that the district will get about $1 million more in new money from its local option budget and weighting factors, which provide added per-pupil funding for students needing bilingual education, enrolled in career and technical training or other special areas.

“It’s fair to say we will continue to use that as a target until we get more information,” Johnson said of the total $4.4 million estimate.

At its last three meetings, the Lawrence school board has discussed priorities of how any new money it receives for 2018-2019 will be spent, but has delayed making decisions until the Legislature took final action on the school finance bill. Among those priorities discussed but not funded were 13 new full-time positions and one half-time position.

Beeson said the board will have a work session before its May 14 meeting on the school finance bill and what it means to the district. There could be action taken after that work session if the board knows with confidence how much new money will be available, she said.

One thing that remains unclear is whether the Legislature did enough to beef up K-12 spending to satisfy the Supreme Court. Johnson said that question will start to be resolved when the Kansas Supreme Court hears oral arguments May 22. The court has until June 30 to announce its decision.