Archive for Thursday, August 4, 2005

Advocates ready to work for renewal of sales tax

August 4, 2005

After convincing residents to vote for renewing Johnson County's quarter-cent school sales tax, lobbying groups then must convince them the measure is worth going to the polls.

Last week Johnson County commissioners set Sept. 27 as the date for a special election to decide whether to renew the tax, from which most revenue will go to school districts.

Some of the same lobbyists who were active during the Kansas Legislature's recent deliberations about school finance will be busy pushing for the sales tax measure until the vote.

Shawnee resident Kathy Cook, executive director of Kansas Families United for Public Education, said Johnson County voters typically were strong supporters of public education. That would bode well for a vote to renew the sales tax, she said, as long as voter apathy for a special election didn't get in the way.

"I don't think it will be difficult to see it pass in Johnson County," Cook said. "It will be difficult to get voters out to the polls because there's not a lot on the ballot. That will be the bigger challenge."

No organized opposition has yet surfaced.

The current three-year tax won easy approval in August 2002 with more than 60 percent of the vote. The quarter-cent tax became effective January 2003. If not renewed, the tax will expire Dec. 31.

Cook said her organization was planning strategies similar to those used to pass the sales tax the first time -- yard signs, letters to the editors of local newspapers and possibly mailings.

With school set to begin in two weeks, Kansas Families also will be able to take advantage of networking opportunities like parent-teacher organizations, Cook said.

Members of Shawnee Mission Committee for Excellence also plan to employ some of the same tactics they did to lobby for the tax's first passage three years ago, as well as Shawnee Mission USD 512's April bond issue.

"It'll be a very inexpensive grassroots campaign that will focus on yard signs and just making people aware that there's this opportunity to vote for better schools," said committee co-chairman Fred Logan, Leawood.

To supplement the Shawnee Mission district effort, Logan teamed with Johnson County businessman Bob Regnier to form a countywide group to support the sales tax renewal: the Committee for Excellent Schools in Johnson County. That group is just beginning to get organized, Logan said.

Logan was optimistic voters would pass the measure.

"I think the fact that it's a renewal of a tax will be very helpful," Logan said. "This is not a tax increase; this is just simply a renewal of an existing tax to provide these grants for schools."

The sales tax vote won handily in 2002, and supporters hope it will do the same this year, though the Legislature recently approved a school finance plan that will increase state funding for schools by $290 million for the upcoming year.

Cook described the sales tax proposal as a "short-term fix for a long-term problem."

She said when the tax first was passed in 2002, it was in response to inadequate school funding by the state.

The Legislature's recent funding increase is only a one-year measure, Cook said.

Renewing the tax will help tide over schools until they begin to see an influx of more state money, which may be brought about by a legislative cost study planned for January, she said.

Cook said she expected the measure to pass, but not without opposition.

"It may be a little closer this time, but I still think that we'll have a good majority voting in favor of it," Cook said.

Before county commissioners set the special election, the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts wrote letters requesting a vote to renew the tax. As he left last Thursday's county commission meeting after lobbying for the extension, Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Tregg acknowledged that the school funding situation was much different than in 2003.

"It will be a bigger challenge than three years ago," he said. "Our role as a school district is to provide the information to the voters."

Advocates from Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley said revenue would benefit all districts eligible to receive it. Those districts attended by Johnson County residents include De Soto, Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, Olathe, Gardner-Edgerton, Spring Hill and Eudora, which has about a dozen Johnson County students.

While that may be true for larger districts with more commercial wealth, the tax's benefit may not outweigh the burden on taxpayers in De Soto USD 232 Board of Education President Sandy Thierer said. "

Personally, as a board member, I resent when the three large districts speak for the county without consulting the other districts in the county," she said. "Our interests and their interests aren't always the same.

"The main reason why that's good for Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe is because they have big business interests within their school districts, so it doesn't land on the individual homeowners. We have a different dynamic over on the west side of the county."

Thierer said if the sales tax were renewed for three more years, she hoped the state would have worked through its funding issues and found a way to provide consistent, adequate aid to schools by the time it expired.

In the meantime, if the tax does pass, Thierer said the district would put incoming money to good use.

"Just like last time, if it passes we aren't going to be dumb enough not to approve it," she said.

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