Danedri Thompson
School officials are asking for voters’ trust in a ballot initiative. In January, USD 231 registered voters will be asked to approve an increase in the district’s budget authority, or its local option budget (LOB).
Currently, the school board can tax USD 231 patrons for funding of up to 30 percent of the district’s general option budget, which is primarily provided by the state. The Kansas Legislature increased local authority up to 33 percent, but school boards must first seek voter approval for to raise the tax rate beyond 30 percent. For each percentage increase, the district could add approximately $350,000. For example, if the board opted to increase its LOB to 32 percent, that would provide an extra $700,000 to the district’s revenue.
During a district-hosted LOB forum on Dec. 18, school finance director Jeremy McFadden told patrons the mail-in ballot will give the board authority to increase the LOB tax rate, but that doesn’t mean board members would necessarily opt to do so. The district is committed to lowering the overall tax rate.
He cited the district’s budget this year as an example. The school board lowered its overall mill levy rate by 13 percent, or approximately 10 mills. That translated into savings of approximately $163 annually for the owner of a $150,000 home.
McFadden said school officials would like to continue lowering the overall mill rate, even with the additional authority to increase the LOB rate. He suggested officials could do so by increasing the LOB rate while lowering other school tax rates. Taxes raised through the LOB can be used for general operating expenses, while other revenue streams, like the capital outlay rate, must be used for specific items. Capital outlay revenues can only be used for capital projects, like roof repairs and parking lots.
A budget with increased LOB tax authority might have a higher LOB tax rate, but a lowered capital outlay rate. McFadden showed one slide as an example. It showed a possible school mill levy rate of 69.5 mills next year. This year’s overall rate is 69.711 mills by comparison.
“If the LOB is supported by the community, we are going to continue to find ways to decrease other funds an the overall rate,” he told the handful of people who attended the forum.
McFadden said the decrease would be possible by lowering the capital outlay collection rate by approximately a half a mill, and lowering the bond and interest tax rate by approximately 1.5 mills. That would still allow the district to increase its LOB tax rate by a little more than 1 mill.
LOB funds would be directed to classrooms, McFadden said. He called it a promise. Specifically, it would be used for staffing costs.
“When we go forward with this — with the community’s support, we’ll continue to support teachers,” he said.
If approved, the additional taxing authority would be continuous and permanent.
“We don’t have to make cuts if it doesn’t pass,” McFadden said. “We’ve structured a budget that’s sustainable.”
The additional taxing authority would help the district stay competitive with other area schools. McFadden said USD 231 is one of two districts in Johnson County using only 30 percent of its LOB authority. Prior to legislative changes this year, public schools could ask for up to 31 percent LOB taxing authority through a vote of the people. USD 231 and the Spring Hill School District had not sought the extra local funding.
Steve Hale, Gardner, requested assurances that extra LOB funding would not be used to pay off a potential law suit.
Hale, a former board member, said he had spoken to the district’s previous superintendent, who was fired a year ago. Hale warned USD 231 is facing a $7 million law suit.
“It’s going to happen,” Hale said. “You’re going to get sued.”
McFadden said the district has liability insurance to protect the district for just such occasions.
Ballots will be mailed to voters Jan. 7. They must be returned to the Johnson County Election by Jan. 27 in order to be counted.
USD 231 will host a second LOB ballot forum at 6 p.m. on Jan. 8 at Trail Ridge Middle School.