Jackson schools seek to move money

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

First comes the bad news: The Jackson School District is operating on a shoestring.

Then comes the solution: Approval from voters to waive a state sales tax rollback and gain $950,000 without raising local taxes.

Jackson superintendent Ron Anderson has given this same presentation 30 times in the past month, seeking support for a Nov. 4 ballot issue that may be the district's only chance at keeping current programs and staff.

On Tuesday morning, he shared the district's financial problems with seven pastors at a Jackson Ministerial Alliance meeting.

The concept is fairly simple: The district lost $400,000 in state funding during the 2002-03 school year and expects to lose $1.4 million in the current school year. To avoid becoming financially distressed, school officials are asking voters to eliminate the district's Proposition C rollback in the operating levy.

The move would shift $950,000 in property taxes from the debt service fund, which can only be used to pay off bonds, to the operating levy. The district also will receive an annual bonus of $1 million from the state for increasing the operating levy.

"The key points to remember are it's not a tax increase, and taxes won't go down if we don't do this," Anderson told alliance members.

"The biggest fear we have is apathy. There's enough support if we can get people to the polls," Anderson said. "If we aren't successful, programs and educational opportunities for students will suffer, and we'll have to consider the election again."

The point was well-taken among alliance members, who plan to share the information with members of their congregations.

"I think education is very important, and we need to be aware of what's going on," said Sam Roethemeyer, pastor of Emanuel United Church of Christ in Jackson.

In 1982, Missouri voters approved a statewide one-cent sales tax known as Proposition C. The proceeds from that tax are distributed on a per-pupil basis to school districts annually.

School districts were originally required to lower, or roll back, local tax levies by one-half the amount received from Proposition C to give property owners a break while providing a new source of revenue for schools.

In the past 20 years, 85 percent of Missouri districts have obtained Proposition C waivers, which allow them to receive the sales tax revenue without lowering their local tax levies. The waivers allow districts to increase property taxes, and therefore cannot be done without voter approval.

No new taxes

In Jackson's case, officials say there would be no tax increase because the district plans to shift from the debt service fund the same amount the rollback would raise the operating levy, thus maintaining the current $3.31 per $100 assessed valuation tax rate.

Because the district has saved money through several bond refinances over the past two years, the debt service can be lowered without an adverse effect on bond payments.

The Ministerial Alliance, like many of the other organizations Anderson has addressed, expressed support for the measure.

"Sometimes you have to do temporary things just so you don't lose too much ground," said Dan Usher, a pastor at New McKendree United Methodist Church.

Because the district sets its annual tax rate in August, the waiver wouldn't kick in until next year, when it would bring in $1.95 million. That amount would barely cover the funding the district lost last year and is expecting to lose this year.

The district ended the 2002-03 school year with a fund balance at 8 percent of expenditures. At the end of 2003-04, officials expect the fund balance to be at 4 percent. Districts with fund balances below 3 percent receive a financially-distressed label from the state and may lose local control.

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