As distasteful as the choice might be, the Wichita school board should consider raising local property taxes to help cover its budget shortfall. A small tax increase, as allowed by the new school finance plan, is preferable to some of the budget cut ideas the district is considering.
In response to the Kansas Supreme Court ruling that state school funding was inequitable, the Legislature approved a plan, which Gov. Sam Brownback signed Thursday, that increases the amount of state funding for capital outlay expenses next school year. It “pays for” that increase by reducing state aid to local option budgets (LOB) by $83 million – which means most school districts, including Wichita, didn’t receive more total funding.
However, the plan allows local school boards to increase their LOB funding by the amount of the state reduction. GOP lawmakers said this gives districts more “flexibility,” though it looks more like the state is off-loading difficult tax decisions on local officials.
According to the Kansas State Department of Education, the amount of state LOB aid reductions (and potential local tax increases) for Sedgwick County districts are: Wichita, $6 million; Derby, $735,024; Haysville, $422,672; Valley Center, $299,711; Mulvane, $55,372; Clearwater, $194,003; Goddard, $680,851; Maize, $1.17 million; Renwick, $486,381; and Cheney, $138,423.
In Wichita’s case, replacing $6 million could require about a 3 mill levy increase, according to the Wichita school district. That would translate to about a $34 annual tax increase for the owner of a $100,000 home.
Because the LOB tax increase would merely replace the state LOB cut next year, it wouldn’t directly help the district cover its projected $16 million to $30 million increase in operating expenses. However, the state has loosened some of the restrictions on capital outlay aid, so some of that increased aid ($4.5 million) likely could go toward certain operating costs. The funding plan also provides Wichita with $1.5 million in “hold harmless” aid that would be available for general operations.
The biggest obstacle to the tax increase may be the Supreme Court. It might reject the new funding plan, given that it merely shifts state funding among categories. The court also might block the LOB tax increase option, because wealthier districts may be more likely to increase their LOB taxes, which could make school funding even more inequitable.
Districts don’t have to finalize their budgets until August, and the court’s decision and any additional legislative actions should be complete by then – or so everyone hopes.
In the meantime, the Wichita district is considering some bad options for reducing spending next year, including more 7 a.m. school start times, staff reductions and elimination of the International Baccalaureate program. If a tax increase remains an option, it should be on the table.