Wichita school board may ask state for permission to raise taxes

Wichita school board members voted 6-1 Monday to spend $420,000 to move more employees into a new district headquarters at the former Southeast High School, at Lincoln and Edgemoor.
Wichita school board members voted 6-1 Monday to spend $420,000 to move more employees into a new district headquarters at the former Southeast High School, at Lincoln and Edgemoor. File photo

Officials at the state’s largest school district may ask the Kansas Board of Education for permission to raise property taxes, which combined with additional state aid could add as much as $11.5 million to the district’s budget.

But members of the USD 259 Board of Education said at Monday’s meeting that they may not use the authority to raise taxes, even if the state agency approves an increase to the local option budget, Wichita public schools officials said on Twitter.

Susan Willis, the school district’s chief financial officer, compared seeking prior approval from the state education board to getting pre-approved for a loan before buying a car, the district said on Twitter.

“We are not raising taxes. ... The vote was simply to give us that option,” board president Sheril Logan told The Eagle.

Documents presented at the board meeting show the potential new tax revenue would come from the district increasing its local option budget, which is currently set at the maximum of 30 percent of the general fund. With the Kansas Board of Education approval, the district can increase its local option budget authority up to 33 percent.

Doing so could generate as much as $11.5 million annually, funded through a mix of state aid and a mill levy increase, according to the district. The mill levy would increase approximately 1.6 mills and raise about $4.5 million. The increased mill levy would cost a property owner about $18 a year more on a $100,000 house.

The district already receives about $115 million a year from the 30 percent local option budget. A little more than half of this year’s local option budget comes from state aid. The local option budget pays for transportation, fuel, central services, technology and utilities, but over half of the money is transferred to other funds.

The district suggested board members seek prior approval to raise taxes in part because of “continued unpredictability with federal and state funds,” according to the meeting documents.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in June that a school funding plan by Kansas lawmakers to add $522 million over five years was inadequate. Justices said the Legislature needed to add more money to cover inflation.

Meeting documents show that Wichita school officials doubt Kansas lawmakers and Supreme Court justices will resolve the funding dispute by April 1, the deadline to notify the state of any intent to increase the local option budget.

“I don’t think they’ll have anything (decided) by April 1,” Logan told The Eagle’s editorial board. “So this gives us some flexibility. We may not use it. In fact, we probably won’t. I don’t feel like our intention is to raise taxes. But I don’t think that we want to say we’re going to go backwards either. So we’ve got to have some flexibility for our options.”

If more money is added by state legislators to cover the cost of inflation, the district may choose to keep the local option budget at 30 percent, documents show. But if there’s no new money, the funds could be used for compensation, new positions and fixed costs. The district said it has $85 million in deferred maintenance and staffing shortages.

The only board member to vote against a motion to file for approval with the state was Stan Reeser. He told The Eagle’s editorial board that he wanted more time to consider the proposal, though he didn’t disagree with considering an increase to local option budget authority.

“I was just asking the board to take a beat,” he said. “We received the information last night, and we still have plenty of time before April 1 to ask for this LOB option authority.”

An official resolution to increase the local option budget authority will likely be voted on at a Feb. 25 board meeting.

Voters may object to the resolution through a protest petition. A petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of qualified electors in the school district and submitted to the county election commissioner within 40 days of the resolution’s publication.

Sedgwick County election office statistics show there are 184,014 eligible registered voters in USD 259, which means a petition would need at least 18,402 signatures.

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