Lindbergh survey results to be presented to board

Survey results will determine how to proceed on tax hike.

By MIKE ANTHONY

The results of a telephone survey designed to help gauge whether community support exists for a tax-rate increase are expected to be presented to the Lindbergh Board of Education in the near future, according to Superintendent Jim Simpson.

Patron Insight of Stilwell, Kan., surveyed Lindbergh residents this month and Simpson anticipated the firm would present its results at the June 8 Board of Education meeting, though “an outside chance” exists the results could be presented to the board on May 11.

In March, the board agreed to proceed with a telephone survey to help determine whether to place a tax-rate increase on the November ballot. At that March 9 meeting, board members voted unanimously to give final approval to more than $4.7 million in reductions for the 2010-2011 school year.

The board’s action eliminated 60 positions, including 45 teaching positions. But even with the $4.7 million in reductions, the district still faces a $3 million budget shortfall next year as part of its long-range financial plan.

The district’s long-range financial plan calls for a spend down of its $24.6 million in reserves with a deficit-spending cap of $3 million per year. In June, the school board adopted a 2009-2010 operating budget that projected a deficit of $3 million. That $3 million deficit was reached by making more than $2 million in reductions for the current school year.

But a further decline in the assessed value of commercial real estate — including successful appeals by commercial property owners to the county Board of Equalization — increased the projected budget deficit for the current school year to roughly $5.1 million.

Officials plan to further utilize district reserves to cover the increased deficit, and projections indicate those reserves will drop to roughly $19.5 million at the end of the current school year. If reserves fall below roughly $13 million, the district would have to borrow money to operate.

Earlier this month, the Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a salary and benefits package for the 2010-2011 school year that provides a 1-percent raise for teachers. A three-year agreement between teachers and the school board approved last November includes an annual review of salary, insurance and tuition reimbursement.

The revisions to the salary schedule and benefits package were approved by a roughly 9-to-1 margin by Lindbergh National Education Association teachers.

The more than $4.7 million in budget reductions approved by the board last month were premised on the possibility of a 2-percent salary increase, but the amount of the pay raise would be determined based on the outcome of negotiations between the Board of Education and LNEA teachers. All employees, including administrators, will receive the same salary increase as teachers.

By agreeing to a 1-percent pay increase, LNEA teachers sacrificed taking home more money in exchange for allowing six full-time classroom teaching positions — a total of seven teachers — to be reinstated.

Simpson told the Call he was pleased with the agreement reached with district teachers. But he is troubled by state funding cuts for the current school year and legislation proposing further cuts in state funding for the 2010-2011 school year.

At the beginning of the board’s April 13 meeting, Simpson announced district officials were informed earlier that day Lindbergh would lose $64,542 in state funding for the current school year. The superintendent also is extremely concerned about legislation being considered by the General Assembly that has the potential to cut up to $500,000 in state funding for Lindbergh next year.

Sponsored by Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, in response to the state budget crisis, Senate Bill 943 would adjust the phase-in of full funding for state school districts.

The cut in state funding for this year and the potential loss of additional state funding next year “is very concerning. The main reason is we’re very fragile,” Simpson said. “And so when you’re very fragile and you get one more cold or one more cough, you get really worried because you’re fragile already. And so we’re fragile financially in Lindbergh because we have the lowest tax levy in the state that’s now going against a declining tax base …”

Because more than 90 percent of Lindbergh’s funding comes from local taxpayers, he said the only solution to the district’s fiscal crisis “is to go to your main revenue source and have a discussion with them. And ultimately that discussion ends up in the polling place and everybody votes on that discussion about here’s what we’ve heard, here’s what we understand, here’s what we believe and here’s how we vote …

“There’s been a telephone survey conducted now and we’re anxious to hear the results of that because that’s the first wave of that discussion.”

Because it will cost the district $40,000 to place a tax-rate increase on the ballot, those survey results will determine how the board will proceed, Simpson said.

“If the survey comes back (and finds): You don’t have a ghost of a chance, this is a nonstarter. It’s $40,000 to put this on the ballot. Any more, you just don’t go on the ballot unless you’ve a chance. You like to think you can win,” he said.

But Simpson said he was surprised at how well school district ballot measures performed in the April elections.

“… If somebody would have told me prior to the elections in April that every school bond and tax levy would pass in the county — every one — easily, I would have said: No, you’re in a dream world. We’re in a deep, deep recession here and that’s going to be really a headwind to get over. And yet, they all did — and the Metro tax (also was approved) …,” he said.

With the teachers’ agreement approved, Simpson said district officials and board members now can focus on a tax-rate increase.

“It’s just so good to have that out of the way so we can focus on the elephant in the room,” he said. “And that is we’ve got to get our revenue source healthy again. If we do not do that, we have serious, serious declines in Lindbergh education in the future and that’s just unthinkable for almost everyone who knows Lindbergh.”