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Independence School District wants voters to pass a tax levy so they can pay teachers more

Natianna Ohmart stands outside her classroom the day before school started last fall.
Natianna Ohmart
Natianna Ohmart stands outside her classroom the day before school started last fall.

Natianna Ohmart, an English teacher at William Chrisman High School, said the tax levy's passage would take financial pressure off her strained budget.

The Independence School District will ask voters to approve tax levy changes to fund higher teacher salaries on August 8, following several Kansas City area districts that have already inched up their pay to stay competitive.

Natianna Ohmart, an English teacher at William Chrisman High School, has been teaching for four years. She says between tutoring students, grading papers, and attending their student’s games and events, teachers already do a lot more work than they’re paid for.

“If you compare us to other professions with similar degree requirements and things like that, we make significantly less,” Ohmart said. “I think it's the disparity to me — that sort of difference, I feel, really underlines that need for an increase in teacher pay.”

Independence also voted in December to move to a four-day school week beginning this school year, specifically to help retain and recruit teachers.

Ohmart said Independence School District teachers make less than others in the region.

The Hickman Mills School District boosted starting teacher pay to $46,500 in November 2022. At the time, the district touted the highest ranked salary for new teachers in the Kansas City area — but KCPS narrowly beaten it with apay hike in February.

Natianna Ohmart and her dog, Pickle, and dressed up for the Trunk or Treat at William Chrisman High School.
Natianna Ohmart
Natianna Ohmart's and her dog Pickle dressed up for the Trunk or Treat this past Halloween.

In the Lee’s Summit School District, voters approved a tax levy transfer in April to allow the district to open up more funds to increase staff salaries.

Here’s a look at where starting salaries for new teachers stand in the Kansas City area for the 2023-2024 school year:

  • Kansas City Public Schools: $46,650
  • North Kansas City Schools: $44,000
  • Hickman Mills School District: $46,500
  • Independence School District: $41,150
  • Lee's Summit School District: $42,370
  • Shawnee Mission School District: $45,466

The Independence School District will ask voters to allow it to raise the operating tax levy by up to 20 cents to make more money available for employee salaries and benefits. It would also allow the district to create new positions if needed and help fill hard-to-staff jobs.

If voters approve, the district said it will only increase its operating levy by 8 cents — not the maximum of 20. The district also plans to lower the debt service levy it uses to fund building projects by 40 cents, decreasing the overall levy by 32 cents. If passed, salary increases would begin for the 2024-2025 school year.

Ohmart said she understands that Independence won’t pay as much as a more affluent area of the Kansas City metro where overall salaries are higher.

“There are places in Independence that are more affluent, but generally it's working class families and so there's not as much income flowing from that,” Ohmart said.

Families in the Independence School District have a median household income of $51,309, and 16.9% of people live below the poverty line.

The measure comes as school districts across the state struggle to keep and attract staff. Missouri pays its teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation — only Montana pays new teachers less.

Ohmart said the low pay makes it hard to make ends meet, especially during the summer. She receives a check in June that includes money that is withheld from her salary throughout the school year.

She said it’s difficult to stretch that money until September when bills pile up over the summer, including buying classroom supplies for the upcoming school year.

“That there are months that I'm like, ‘I don't know how I'm gonna meet all of these needs that I have,’” Ohmart said.

Students at William Chrisman High School write on Natianna Ohmart's whiteboard.
Natianna Ohmart
Students at William Chrisman High School write on Natianna Ohmart's whiteboard.

Even during the school year, Ohmart said teachers often pick up side jobs for a second income. Ohmart helps with local writing camps, test scoring and conferences throughout the year to supplement her own pay.

Ohmart said she has regular bills — like her mortgage, utilities, and groceries — as well as visits to the veterinarian and food for her many pets. She just finished paying off a loan for her master’s program and anticipates having to start paying off other student loans this fall.

There are also expenses that she can’t anticipate, like having to replace the HVAC system in her aging house and a necessary surgery for an eye condition. She’s been unable to afford another surgery to help her with her unrestful sleep.

“Teenagers are a lot, and they take a lot of emotional regulation from the teacher, and it's really hard to do that when you're exhausted all the time,” Ohmart said. “Overall, the levy would help me to build that safety net to pay for those medical expenses.”

Ohmart said a pay increase from the tax levy would take some financial pressure off, allowing her to build her savings and emergency funds. She said most of her savings are used up by the end of each summer covering expenses.

Beyond more financial security, she said passing the tax levy changes would make Independence teachers feel more valued as professionals. She said she doesn’t know a teacher who isn’t working outside school hours or spending hundreds of dollars on their classrooms.

“Most teachers that I know are doing their best, and want to help kids, and want to prepare them for the future and show them that they're loved and go above and beyond to make that happen,” Ohmart said.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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