We absolutely need to make sure we question those making decisions that affect our finances. Credit to those in opposition of the Platte County R-3 School District’s proposed tax levy increase, which heads to the ballot next week. Heck, I’d also like to thank those in support.
I’ve read the letters and heard the arguments, and I’ve asked questions of those on both sides. It’s been an enjoyable experience, although I joke with Platte County superintendent Mike Reik that I feel almost as well-versed in this $29-million plan to try and deal with the ongoing residential growth.
Make no mistake. Tuesday, April 7 will be a big day one way or the other for the future of those living in the Platte County School District.
The problem I’ve run into when assessing the merits and faults of the 43-cent tax increase, which is discussed in detail starting on page A1 of this issue, is that the facts seem to stand in the way of the more convenient option. Saying no to tax increases has become the thing to do. The idea of allowing individuals to decide what to do with their money sounds so darn appealing.
However, I think those in the anti-tax crowd have more of a problem with the national education system than, say, the ideas Reik and the school board have presented and approved for the ballot.
Hear me out.
This might get complicated, but that’s the problem with an issue like this one: there’s lots of small details that make this tough to figure this out. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of detailed conversations on the matter that really dig into the process and numbers involved — an intimate convenience Reik can’t extend to every voter that has attended school board and informational meetings on the topic.
I have a feeling if more voters could hear the specific reasoning this measure would pass comfortably instead of looking more like a 50-50 proposition as the election nears.
The informational material and opinions out there discrediting the district’s plan have some issues and other points that have been covered and explained.
Yes, the district collects a large amount of taxes, and yes, a lot of that goes toward salary staff. That’s true of all districts. The idea of stopping raises and “tightening the ol’ belt” sound great, but there’s a problem with that theory: the district operates with revenue divided into four rounds.
Why is that important?
The Missouri Department of Secondary Education limits districts on how much money can be transferred into funds that can be used for building projects. Platte County maxes that out each year — about $1.8 million most recently — and that money is used for key items and services like computers and maintenance. The district would need to stop spending all of the money for nearly two decades to fund the current project — maybe longer depending on escalating construction costs and interest rates that can’t be accurately predicted.
The $177,000 paid annually to help fund the Community Center North’s natatorium expansion? You might not agree with that expenditure, and that’s certainly a debate, but that money couldn’t be used to fund new buildings because of where the funds used reside.
That’s why the district wants voters to approve a new revenue stream. There’s limitations to what planning and solid budgeting could do.
And of course, the district does plan for these ideas. The $800,000 paid to Hollis and Miller Architects that has been questioned? Those are soft costs of any construction project, used to take an accurate number to the voters for the tax increase, so the district doesn’t end up asking for more than it needs.
Although not a huge part of the overall cost, that’s money in the existing budget being used to help fund this expansion, whether it occurs now or in the future.
“You can’t build a building without architect fees,” Reik said.
A debt-per-student number continues to be thrown around, which is interesting and forced me into a lot of questions.
Yes, Platte County currently has about $60 million in debt, all tied to construction projects that have occurred since 2004. This equates to roughly $16,000 per student, which does in fact sound extremely scary. A comparison chart that staunch opponent Kirby Holden has cited shows Liberty next on a comparison list at about $13,000 per student with another group of schools at roughly $10,000.
Let’s ignore the fact that the school has a healthy budget to pay off that debt for a second. If you want Platte County to be close to Liberty, erase $11 million of that debt or the approximation of Pathfinder Elementary in the southern portion of the district — a building, by the way, slated for expansion under the proposed plan.
To get to the next level of schools? About $20 million or the approximate cost of Platte City Middle School.
So it sounds great to want to lower that number, but when a district is forced to accommodate undeniable growth, what are the other options? The money has to come from somewhere to fund these projects, and I challenge anyone to find the budgeting that would allow for the district to pay cash for all of the needs that have sprung up in the past 20-plus years.
There’s plenty more: money spent on conferences and awards (district mandated to spend at least 1 percent of its budget on improvement practices), school election budget (a static number of $15,000 is budgeted every year although actual cost is often much lower), total taxes received (revenues that come from outside sources being included that make the number higher than actual).
Platte County operates with a comparatively low tax levy already. It has the sixth lowest per-pupil expenditure in Platte, Clay and Jackson counties, which seems acceptable.
There’s money in the bank and in the budget, but do you reasonably want to ask the district to try and save these large amounts of money at the detriment of other services?
“We would have to save so much money,” Reik said, “that it would be cannibalizing our existing budget to such absurd levels that it would be negligent to our children. How much lower do we need to be?”
There’s not many answers left. The district’s 2012 proposal failed miserably, not because officials asked for more than what they needed but because they misread what voters were willing to tolerate.
That’s been admitted, and they’ve adjusted accordingly. There’s no reasonable way to conclude that continuing to pass this problem down the road while the district spends your existing tax money on patchwork solutions that are not financially responsible.
There’s an argument to be made that the public school system is bloated and overfunded. But your issue isn’t with Platte County R-3, and your path to change needs to start much higher up than with Reik.
There’s a job to do, and Reik will do the right thing if enough voters say, “Yes” next week.
Ross Martin is publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Citizen_Ross.