Lawrence school board set to approve budget; it will also consider giving $1,500 bonuses to employees

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence school district offices, pictured in April 2021.

A budget that reduces the local property tax rate and a program to provide about $5 million in employee bonuses over the next two years are both up for approval at Monday’s Lawrence school board meeting.

Board members are expected to approve a 2021-2022 budget that will authorize about $201.4 million in net expenditures for the year, while reducing the school district property tax rate by 0.242 of a mill.

The more than $200 million budget would be a significant increase in funds for the school district, which spent about $158 million in the 2020-2021 school year. An increase in federal funds received by the district is part of increased budgeted spending levels. The district is budgeting to spend about $22 million in federal funds in 2021-2022, up from about $5 million in the last budget year.

But the district also is collecting slightly more in property taxes from residents. The budget calls for $69.1 million in property tax collection, up from about $68.4 million in collections for the 2020-2021 school year. The increased tax revenue is occurring despite a slight reduction in the property tax rate the district will charge to residents. That means all the district’s increased tax revenue is coming as a result of increased property values in the district.

While property values went up, the district isn’t receiving as big of a boost in property tax collections as it has in previous years. This budget year is expected to see property tax collections increase by about $680,000 or about 1% compared with 2020-2021 totals. That’s less of an increase than the district had to work with when it prepared its budget last year. For that year, property tax collections increased by about $3.3 million, or about 5%.

Part of the reason for the difference is that enrollment figures and other metrics that are considered in school financing formulas used by the state would not allow the district to raise its property tax mill levy in ways that the district has in the past.

The result is that the district’s property tax rate is declining by 0.242 of a mill. For the owners of homes valued at $200,000, the property tax rate decrease would equate to a reduction of about $5.50 in their annual property taxes. However, in reality, their tax bills may actually increase, if the county appraises their homes at taxable values higher than they were a year before. In general, most home values in the county have increased, while the value of business property has been more likely to decrease due to economic disruptions caused by the pandemic.

On paper, the proposed budget seemingly will provide a large increase — about a 28% increase — in spending power for the district. While federal funds are expected to provide some additional spending power for the district, it is not yet clear whether all the budgeted spending by the district will come to fruition. It is common for school districts to budget for amounts greater than they actually spend, in anticipation that other state revenues develop throughout the school year. If the district does not include the spending totals in its budget, it becomes difficult for the district to spend the money if additional state revenues do materialize.

The district’s two major operating funds — its general fund and its supplemental general fund — show much smaller increases for the next year. Those funds pay a bulk of the salaries and other day-to-day expenses of the district. Those two funds combined are budgeted to spend about $110.8 million in the budget year. That’s up from $105.4 million — about a 5% increase — in the 2020-2021 budget year. School district leaders likely would be happy with that increase, as it would be a reversal of fortunes. In the 2020-2021 school year, the district saw its spending in those two major operation funds fall by about $1 million compared with the 2019-2020 school year.

One other major fund worth noting is the district’s bond and interest fund, which pays for the district’s debt. The district expects to spend $13.95 million on debt payments in 2021-2022. That is down very slightly from $13.99 million in debt payments in 2020-2021. The district has about $172.8 million in debt on its books, which has funded various school building improvements. That debt total is down from about $180 million in 2020.

Members of the public can weigh in on the district’s budget at a 6 p.m. budget hearing Monday at the school district’s offices at 110 McDonald Drive. Board members then are scheduled to take a vote on the budget following that hearing.

Bonus program

In a separate action, school board members are being asked to approve a new employee bonus program aimed at slowing down staff turnover in the district.

The result could be that teachers and other school employees may receive $1,500 in bonuses over the next school year, then again in the 2022-2023 school year, if they remain employed by the district.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis is asking the board to use pandemic relief funds from the federal government to pay for the program. A state task force and the state’s board of education also would have to approve the program.

As envisioned by the district, most district employees would receive their first $500 bonus on Oct. 22, their second $500 bonus on March 10 and their third $500 bonus on June 17. Employees would receive the same set of bonuses on roughly the same schedule in the 2022-2023 school year.

Temporary employees, substitute teachers, seasonal on-call employees, tutors, certain part-time coaches and other noncontracted employees wouldn’t be eligible for the bonuses. But the vast majority of people who work at Lawrence public schools — the district employs about 1,700 people — would be eligible for the bonuses.

The district is estimating the program would require about $5.3 million in pandemic funds over the two school years.

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