Board knows new school is needed to answer growth, but when to ask voters for tax increase is problematic
The Platte County R-3 School District’s Board of Education knows that the district needs more classroom space. Current and projected student enrollment figures and facilities that are nearing, at or over-capacity are all the proof they need. District officials also know a tax levy increase is needed to fund that new classroom space.
The question is this: is the District ready to place a tax levy increase proposal on the April 2104 ballot? Or should it wait until later in the year or possibly 2015? The Board of Education decided at its meeting last week that it’s not ready to answer that question – at least, not yet. The Board also decided it will hold a special work session after the holidays to help it make that decision. The meeting will be focused on finalizing a direction for the Board to pursue in asking voters to approve a tax increase to fund the building and operation of an elementary school in Platte City and constructing an addition to Pathfinder Elementary at the District’s Barry campus. “Our job as leaders charged with taking care of our students with fiscally responsible business decisions is relatively clear,” R-3 Superintendent Dr. Mike Reik said. “However, timing is everything when it comes to securing voter approval. As I have stated before, this decision is less about what and more about when. The Board is being very deliberate and analytical because they understand their complicated role of balancing what’s best for kids and what will be supported by our taxpaying citizens.” Factoring into the Board’s decision is the fact that in April 2012, R-3 patrons shot down a 60-cent levy increase question — the District’s first operating tax levy increase proposal in nearly three decades — by a double-digit margin. During the 20 months since, District officials have analyzed data from various surveys and studied input from a Citizens Advisory Group. Using that information as well as projections from engineering and consulting professionals, District officials have formulated a modified proposal that the Board is mulling. Basically, the new plan still calls for a tax levy increase, albeit a smaller one ranging from 49 cents to 57 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and construction of a new elementary school and Pathfinder addition. But the new project — estimated at $22 million — does not include several ancillary expenditures from the 2012 proposal, including new tennis courts, technology improvements, etc. The new proposal also calls for a sunset – or expiration date – of the tax in 20 years. The lack of a sunset clause was one reason the District believes the previous measure failed. Another reason and one that continues to be a concern is the economic climate — which has improved, but still may not be conducive to public acceptance of a tax increase. Reik presented an overview of all that information to the Board last week. Board President Sharon Sherwood said the Board looked at all that information and decided it needed more time to work on it, hence the January work session. “I’m just not ready to make that decision right now,” she said. “We need the new building, but I’m hesitant. Is it the right time?” Sherwood said she also wanted to review options for the District if it does not place a levy increase on the ballot or if it does and the measure fails for a second time. She said that the future of Rising Star, which the District will likely close if a tax levy increase proposal passes, is a concern. If the school is kept open it needs some major repairs and improvements, including a new roof. “What happens if it fails?” she said. “I think before we make the decision on the tax levy increase, we have to have more information on how we can make improvements or changes to Rising Star and any potential implications on the budget.” Board member Adam McGinness said that the Board is committed to being as thorough as possible in making its decision on when to seek a tax levy increase. “This is a very important decision and we want to make sure that we make the best decision for our district as a whole,” he said. “There are so many factors to consider when it comes to a levy proposal. It is so hard to predict growth. So many factors can affect growth trends and each year can be so different. When you look at our district over the past few years, our student population has continued to grow. We see nothing out there that would cause that trend to change. We will continue to grow, it is just a matter of by how much. The District is already at or near capacity in several of our facilities. The growth projections show us that we must prepare for more students coming into our district. The Board wants to make sure that our district is prepared for this growth.” Reik said he knows the Board will make an informed decision after the January work session, the date of which will be determined soon. “Since our long range plan is predicated off of taking care of student needs at certain enrollment thresholds, the Board of Education understands the general implications of waiting,” he said. “During the work session we will talk about these implications in detail as well as what to do with Rising Star — possibly a short term plan. Overall, the work session will likely address several scenarios that explore our options relative going to the voters in April 2014 or waiting until April 2015.” Sherwood said the Board takes its responsibility seriously. “Continuously, it weighs on our minds —where are we going to put those kids that are coming and how we are going to educate them and make sure they are safe,” she said. “That’s first and foremost, and then comes our responsibility to make sure we spend our taxpayer funds correctly.”