More leeway to raise taxes? Be prudent, Wichita school board

Wichita school board members decided Monday to ask state officials for the authority to raise local tax rates.

They didn’t raise taxes — at least not yet. But it’s a significant first step that local residents should pay attention to as they follow this year’s legislative session and its progress on school finance.

Wichita’s local option budget, or LOB — money that voters elect to tax themselves to provide extra funding for their schools — is currently at 30 percent of its general fund. Board members want the option of increasing the LOB to 33 percent, which could generate an additional $11.5 million.

“With this we’re just giving ourselves an option if something happens in Topeka and we don’t get money,” said board president Sheril Logan. “We’d at least have some way to maybe eke out a little bit so that we’re not going backwards again.”

The board’s caution is understandable. Despite last year’s boost in state funding, school districts are reeling from several straight years of education cuts. Wichita closed schools, eliminated bus routes, cut positions and froze teacher pay, among other reductions.

Last year’s increase allowed the district to raise pay for teachers and substitutes, add days back to the school year, launch new credit-recovery centers in high schools and establish a new school for young children with behavior problems.

Wichita might have to cut those programs if state lawmakers don’t adjust their existing funding plan for inflation, as directed by the Kansas Supreme Court. That would be an unfortunate step back.

But any hike in local taxes comes at a cost.

If board members raise taxes to the maximum proposed amount, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $18 a year. Commercial property is taxed at more than double the residential rate, though, so local businesses would pay significantly more.

Taxpayers do have a voice in the process. A request to raise the local option budget is subject to a protest petition — signatures from at least 10 percent of eligible voters — which could force the request onto the ballot for a public vote.

If voters feel comfortable that elected officials will be prudent with additional taxing authority, that need not happen.

If state lawmakers come through with expected levels of education funding, board members should refrain from raising local taxes, even if they have the authority to do so.

Board member Stan Reeser said he supports additional taxing authority as an “insurance policy” against drastic cuts. But he pledged not to raise local taxes if state funding covers current programs.

“I think the school board will be very conservative in their approach,” he said. “We’ll live within our means.”

Sounds like a plan.