Archive for Thursday, December 20, 2001

Possible cuts alarm USD 232 officials

December 20, 2001

De Soto USD 232 officials went into crisis mode Monday for an emergency they hope doesn't develop.

Administrators learned of the potential crisis last Friday when Gov. Bill Graves released details of his fiscal year 2003 budget. To meet his obligation of presenting the Legislature with a balanced budget , the governor proposed $426 million in cuts, including a $128 million cut to K-12 education.

The cuts were necessitated by less-than-anticipated tax collections during the current recession. Graves said he hoped his proposal would wake legislators to the gravity of the situation, and called for unspecified tax increases.

De Soto Deputy Superintendent Sharon Zoellner called the proposed budget "devastating." The $158 decreases in per-pupil state aid would wipe out the three $50 increases school districts received the past three years "plus $8," Zoellner said. District administrators met Monday to discuss "creative" ways to trim the budget, she said.

"We hate to put too much out there," she said. "If it doesn't come to fruition, we don't want to scare everybody. At the same time, we have to be prepared."

At the district's current enrollment and state reimbursement schedule, the proposed cuts would slash the district's budget by $1.3 million, Zoellner said.

"With salaries and benefits, that's 35 teachers about what we would have to hire in new staff to keep our class sizes where they are," she said.

Last spring, the school board approved a two-year contract with district teachers. The contract increases the total benefit package for district teachers by 8 percent and gives them a $2,200 raise.

Zoellner said the district "has every intention of honoring that commitment," but added nearly everything else would be on the table.

"We would look at classroom size," she said. "Every single program every single department would be scrutinized."

Under the state's current school finance formula, the district would be unable to make up the loss in state revenue from local taxes. It is supplementing its budget with the maximum local mill levy allowed with a so-called local option budget of 25 percent of general fund revenue. The district's general fund is the per-pupil dollars the district receives from the state.

Zoellner said the 4.4-percent decrease in state general fund dollars would necessitate a corresponding percentage decrease in the local option budget.

"We could go to the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals for additional mill levy authority with the opening of the 47th Street elementary," she said. "We don't want to do that, but it's something we might have to consider."

When Zoellner shared the effects of the cuts to the De Soto USD 232 board of education Monday, board member Sandy Thierer said the proposed budget would be a victory for lawmakers opposed to public education. She said voters will have to prove at the polls they care about education.

"I hope taxpayers get the message that they (legislators) thought the best thing for the state was to cut, cut, cut," she said.

State Rep. John Ballou, R-Gardner, said there is little support in the Kansas House for the tax increase he said Graves is attempting to force by listing the programs and projects that would be cut. He noted Graves refused to say which highway programs would be funded three years ago when the Legislature was debating the transportation bill. Now, Graves has listed the highway programs that will be cut to pressure legislators, he said.

Despite the severity of the cuts, Ballou said he found little support for a tax increase among fellow Republican House members during what he called a fortuitously timed swing through western Kansas with House Majority Leader Sheri Weber. Instead, the 35 representatives he'd talked to are calling for a "recision" bill that would make cuts to the 2002 budget, he said.

"I've only found one person so far who was willing to support a tax increase, and that was a sales tax," Ballou said. "I'm hearing a lot of support for a recision bill that makes cuts to the current budget so we can soften the blow to the 2003 budget.

"We're going to come back and say House Republicans want to see a recision bill."

Cutting a number of programs this year, would free up money for education next year, Ballou said.

"If we did a recision bill first thing when we got back in January, we might not have to cut education. At least education wouldn't be hit so hard," he said.

It would take a massive tax increase to eliminate all cuts, Ballou said.

"We're not talking about a little tweak here and there," he said. "A quarter-cent sales tax is not what is needed. It would take a 1- to 2-cent sales tax and doubling the 20 mill levy."

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