The article below was originally published in the 3/24/21 edition of The Lawson Review. It has been reprinted with permission.
On Tuesday, April 6th, voters will decide on an operating levy increase for the Lawson R-XIV School District. The district is asking for a 95-cent increase in its levy. The money generated by the increase would be used for four general purposes:
If approved by voters, the district would increase its operating levy to $3.90 from $2.95. The owner of a $150,000 home would pay an additional $271 annually in school taxes. The District currently has the lowest operating tax rate of school districts in the region at $2.9547 per 100 of Assessed Valuation (AV). Due to Assessed Valuation (AV) growth faster than the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the District’s operating levy has reduced by almost 45 cents since 2013-14. In 2013-14 the operating levy was $3.4024 and in 2020-21 it is $2.9547.
With a vision for future demands and needs, adjusting to the enrollment decline and associated decline of state revenues, the District is proactively asking for voters to approve an operating levy increase of $0.9500 per 100 AV. The resulting increase will provide an additional annual revenue $750,000 for the District. These funds will be utilized to increase and maintain competitive salaries for all staff, increasing and maintaining technology advances for our instructional offerings, offset the rising costs of good and services and overcoming the decline in state revenues. Even with the $0.9500 (95 cent) levy increase, the District will still be in the lower half of regional districts in terms of operating levy.
The Decline in State Revenue
In 2007-08, Lawson R-XIV enjoyed a peak enrollment of 1357 students. As a result of the Great Recession, enrollment began to decline until stabilizing with a slight return of growth prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the declining enrollment, in a fiscally responsible manner, the District began to reduce staff, absorbing positions when retirements or resignations have occurred. Peak certified staff has reduced by 17 positions from 2008 to match the enrollment decline.
Since enrollment is the main driver of state revenue through the foundation formula, Lawson now receives about $700,000 less annually in state revenue compared to 2009-10. To compound the problem with state funding, the District receives about $150,000 less annually in state transportation aid than they did a decade ago. Superintendent Roger Schmitz identified that the District once received as much as $275,000 from the state in transportation funding. In 2018-19 that amount had reduced to just under $120,000 a year. The District continues to provide bus transportation for all students even though state funding is not eligible for any students living within a mile of the school.
Another example of the state no longer funding a program is the Career Ladder program. Career Ladder is a program that pays teachers for work outside of the school day, mostly before or after-school tutoring. In 2007-08 the state contributed $180,000 to the career ladder program, but by 2009-10 the state had eliminated all funding for it. Lawson still contributes approximately $180,000 a year to continue the program that once received over 60% state funding.
“It’s why, slowly, the school district was forced to rely more heavily on local revenues, because you have to keep making up more and more from your own district just to cover what the state no longer provides,” Schmitz said.
To retain and attract quality staff, improving teacher and staff salariesIn 2008, the starting salary for a teacher in Lawson was $33,500 and only $73 less than the average of the Northland school districts of Park Hill, Platte County, Smithville, Kearney, Liberty, and Excelsior Springs. By 2021, the starting salary had risen to $36,500 but is now $949 less than the Northland average of $37,449. The need to retain and attract quality educators and staff is becoming more and more important in light of two significant factors. First, over 35% of the current District staff is eligible for retirement, and six retirements have already been announced this year. The ability to attract and retain quality teachers is directly related with a competitive salary. When combining the nationwide teacher shortage factor, the pool of quality teachers is smaller than ever before.
The District intends to use the majority of annual proceeds from the levy increase to raise salaries for all staff to better compete with the Northland schools and close the gap in the starting salary. In 2013, Park Hill had the highest starting salary of area schools with $37,375. Today, a handful of districts have starting salaries over $40,000. A significant portion of Lawson’s teaching staff do not live in the District but commute to work daily from areas in the Northland. Superintendent Schmitz believes the combination of the appeal of Lawson as a wonderful supportive community and competitive salaries has attracted teachers and staff from outside the area. “Lawson has always displayed amazing support for the school district. We have a number of employees that drive here for work and some have lived as far away as Lee’s Summit or Savannah”.
To expand and maintain technology resources.
The need for technology expansion has become more evident during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past three years, the District has more than tripled its laptop and Ipad inventory, moving to a 1:1 computer to student ratio to rise to the challenges of remote learning during the pandemic. As recent as 2016-17, the district had 200 laptops in its inventory. Today, the number is approximately 1,200. The dedicated technology staff, however, is the same as 2013-14 consisting of one full-time technology director and two part-time assistants. The District has largely accomplished expansion of inventory through the federal Computers for Learning program and through CARES Act funds.
The Computers for Learning program is a federal program that allows schools to receive computer equipment when agencies such as the USDA, Social Security or Homeland Security change out equipment. The Ray County commissioners granted CARES funding to the District to purchase over 200 I-pads for grades K-2 in the fall to promote remote learning when needed. While these two programs have allowed the District to rapidly expand its technology inventory, there are certainly no guarantees the programs will exist in the future for replacing and updating this technology as it comes time to replace. Superintendent Schmitz estimates the District may need up to $125,000 annually to continue a 1:1 computer inventory and establish a replacement rotation of 5-6 years life expectancy of a computer.
To cover increased costs of educational programs and operations
Just as the need for competitive salaries and technology replacement is an on-going one, so too are the rising costs of goods and contracted services. The District, through a competitive bid process, entered into a new contract for bus transportation services at an increased cost of over $58,000 over the contract ending in 2019-20. As detailed above, state transportation revenue has declined 55% since 2009-10, but the cost for contracted transportation has increased 56% in the same time.
Just four years ago, virtual education in Missouri didn’t exist under state law. The MoCAP law was then enacted requiring school districts to pay for virtual education should an eligible student become eligible under the law. As a result of this new law, the District budgets approximately $100,000 in the current year compared to zero just a few years ago. As a result of the pandemic and the push for expanding virtual education by the state legislature, Superintendent Schmitz doesn’t envision that cost going away. “Actually, the state legislature is currently considering legislation that will expand the MoCAP law that will erode the ability of the local district in the decision making, but not reduce the financial obligation.”
In another area of great importance to Schmitz, the District, like all employers, continues to work at providing health insurance for employees amid higher premium costs. The District’s health insurance premiums increased approximately $55,000 in January 2021. “For many years, we have seen our rates show slow growth from 2011 to 2020, but this year our rates were increased based on high usage,” Schmitz said. The District’s per employee per month premium was $338 in 2011, $395 in 2020, and now $489 in 2021. Schmitz added, “Providing a paid health insurance premium benefit for employees is very important to our overall commitment to staff.”
Overall, Schmitz emphasizes that the District is not in financial straits. “We are in a good solid position, but it is a position that is continually falling behind having to use local revenues to make up for the lack of state funding even though those programs are still required. The levy issue is chance to have long-term vision and improve our great school district.”
Area Operating Levies, 2020-21