As a farmer in Western Kansas, I recently read with interest of the somewhat controversial issue of school consolidation being discussed in Red Willow County.
A strong advocate of education myself, with several years of school board experience in the '70s and '80s, I am aware that there is a strong argument to be made either way. It seems that the fly in the ointment is the same one that plagues Kansas schools and that is the accompanying bond elections for new buildings to house the combined districts' students.
In the 1970s, Lane County, Kan., District 482 operated six attendance centers with 700-plus students on a $450,000 general fund budget. Today, Lane County operates two attendance centers with 295 students on a $1.9 million general fund budget.
The goal of the district in the 1970s was to provide a quality education more efficiently. There was also a bond election of more than $2 million passed for bigger and better facilities at that time. All of the studies and surveys commissioned at that time showed that there would be great savings and improved education by consolidating the six buildings into two or three and building new facilities. The resulting 30 years hence tell a much different story. While education is somewhat improved for various reasons, the cost of education, along with tax increases, has skyrocketed while enrollment has plunged. The declining enrollment was due only to population shift such as being seen in all of farm country.
The states of Kansas and Nebraska fund education very similarly. This funding is, of course, from ad valorem tax. This places the burden entirely on the shoulders of property owners.
Most taxpayers I talk with are passionate about education but are also passionate about not increasing taxes.
Western Kansas is in the third year of the worst drought since the 1930s, as is western Nebraska. Western Kansas is already seeing land values drop because of increasingly higher taxes. Our merchants, implement dealers and co-ops, as well as farmers, are spewing red ink.
The state of Kansas is $125,000,000 short of being able to fund the state budget, and consequently local effort tax money sent to Topeka is not being reimbursed to school districts timely, leaving administrators and school boards faced with little choice but reducing staff. This means another family must leave western Kansas.
I think we must ask ourselves as voters, taxpayers, parents and advocates of education, are we being fiscally responsible when we entertain passing these huge financial obligations?
I don't think a child's education ever suffered because of not having a new building in which to attend school.
If we espouse the theory that a new school building will keep our towns alive, remember that every dollar spent in increased taxes is another dollar that won't be spent on Main Street.
In closing, I hope my experiences in Western Kansas will be of some help to the good citizens of Red Willow County in making some very tough decisions.