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Kansas City Public Schools will maintain tax levy to deal with $400 million in maintenance needs

Closeup image showing a silver and gray sign on a brick building that reads: "Kansas City Public Schools."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Board members voted Wednesday to maintain the district’s current tax levy to address longstanding deferred maintenance, like a lack of central air in some classrooms. The move comes as county property taxes, the district's biggest source of revenue, stand to skyrocket.

Kansas City Public School’s Board of Directors voted unanimously Wednesday night to maintain the district’s current tax levy.

That’s despite skyrocketing property assessments across Jackson County, and a Missouri law that requires other districts to lower their levies if property values rise faster than inflation.

Since 2021, assessed property values rose by an average of 40% in Jackson County. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index increased about 13% over the last two years.

Kansas City Public Schools expects to see a $32.9 million increase in revenue because of the bump in property values. And the district is exempt from what’s known as the Hancock Amendment because its levy was set by a federal judge in 1995, as part of desegregation litigation.

“We're recommending the maximum amount, because we haven't changed this tax rate for 25 years,” said KCPS Chief Financial Officer Erin Thompson.

Part of the reason for making that ask, she said, is because the district’s buildings have more than $400 million in deferred maintenance.

“Of course we're going to ask for all we could get for our children in the classroom to have safe schools,” she said.

The district hasn’t had a successful bond measure or tax levy increase since 1998, when securing one required an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment also means KCPS is the only school district in the state that can’t raise its levy if property assessments go down.

That means the district has to fund all of its operating costs, building projects and debt service payments out of a levy set 25 years ago.

Other Kansas City area school districts regularly receive voter support to raise levies or issue bonds to increase teacher pay or pay for new buildings. KCPS officials report their levy is the second smallest in the region — $4.9599 per $100 of assessed valuation.

At that rate, and accounting for a 31% increase in property values, the district said the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $1,243 in taxes to the school — a $301 increase from last year.

If the district rolled back its rate by 10 cents, Thompson said, that homeowner would pay about $19 less, but it would cost the district $5.1 million.

At Wednesday night's board meeting, a line of several posters showed examples of the estimated $400 million Kansas City Public School has in deferred maintenance.
Jodi Fortino
At Wednesday night's board meeting, a line of posters showed examples of the estimated $400 million Kansas City Public School has in deferred maintenance.

District officials say KCPS will set aside additional revenue resulting from the higher assessments to address longstanding maintenance issues. The high costs of maintaining aging buildings factored into the district’s decision to close two schools earlier this year.

“We cannot in good conscience sit and do nothing,” said district Superintendent Jennifer Collier, “and maintaining our current tax levy rate will position us to act on these most pressing needs.”

Collier singled out heating and air conditioning problems. The district ended classes early during a heatwave in August, noting many of its high schools don't have air conditioning units in all classrooms.

Tax credits and appeals could come into play

District officials are also taking into account the thousands of Jackson County residents who are appealing their property assessment. Thompson said the district will use a conservative collection rate of 85%, based on the county’s last assessment hike in 2019.

And the district will have to consider a new tax credit that freezes property tax levels for eligible seniors starting next year. The credit is intended to provide relief for older adults who own homes with a market value less than $550,000.

Thompson said the district won’t know how much the credit will impact their revenue until they receive a preliminary assessment in the spring, but Missouri schools rely heavily on local sources of funding, like property taxes. KCPS officials say 80% of their budget comes from local property tax.

In a letter to the school board, Jackson County Legislator Manny Abarca, a former KCPS board treasurer, asked current members to consider lowering its levy.

“I understand the narrative, the argument, the priority, and the issues that come with this discussion. However, I challenge you as governors of taxpayer dollars to do what is right for the taxpayer to ensure any future investments and support for the district are maintained at a level that folks can afford,” Abarca wrote. “These increases will undoubtedly drive people out of their homes and any and all relief possible should be taken.”

Joseph Nelson, a community member who mentors KCPS students, spoke at Wednesday’s school board meeting in support of maintaining the current levy. But he also asked the school district to look into other funding avenues, so it isn’t so dependent on the property tax.

“We can't, as a city, hold Super Bowl parades and boast about hosting the NFL Draft and World Cup, when our kids can’t attend a full day of school,” Nelson said.

Other Kansas City area school districts also set their tax levies

At the Independence School District’s tax levy hearing on Sept. 12, some older adults asked if there was any way to keep its levy lower because some of them struggle to pay their taxes, and may default on their mortgage.

While the ISD did vote to decrease its overall tax levy by 32 cents, officials said the drop came from the district's decision to lower its debt service levy in order to spend more money on teacher pay and additional positions.

“People have always been very supportive of the school district. And I think we've always been very mindful, as I believe we were this time,” said Independence board member Jill Esry, ahead of voting on the levy.

It’s unfortunate that higher county assessments came at the same time as a vote on the levy, Esry said, but “the district can't do anything about lowering people's taxes … so I feel really awful.”

The Lee’s Summit School District announced it would roll back its tax levy by more than 59 cents to offset the assessed valuation increases. The Blue Springs School District also voted to lower its levy earlier this month because of assessment concerns. The Hickman Mills School District will hold a tax levy hearing on Sept. 28.

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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