Amendment's Passage Stabilizes Funding for Kansas City Schools

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Kansas City school officials breathed a sigh of relief last week when Missouri voters passed a measure crucial to the financial viability of the district.

By a ratio of more than 2-to-1, state voters backed a constitutional amendment to maintain the district's current property-tax rate of $4.96 for each $100 of assessed value.

Without passage of Amendment No. 3 or a local tax levy, the 35,000-student district could have lost $80 million a year in tax revenue and potentially gone bankrupt when federal court involvement in its desegregation case ends, possibly as soon as 2000.

"We're ecstatic," said Kathy Reed, the president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "There was a great fear we'd lose this district."

Outside Help

A federal judge first raised Kansas City's school-tax rate to $4.96 from $2.75 for each $100 of assessed value in 1987 to make the district financially capable of carrying out reforms ordered by the court as a part of the desegregation case.

But without voter approval, the rate would have slipped back to its original level with the end of court involvement.

Kansas City residents could have preserved the current rate with a two-thirds majority in a local vote. But because the city's residents have a history of rejecting tax levies, district leaders decided they would be more likely to achieve the simple majority necessary to pass the measure as an amendment to the Missouri Constitution on a statewide ballot.

"We did not feel that Kansas City would pass it," Ms. Reed said. "We thought the best way to get it passed was to go statewide."

Ultimately, Kansas City voters did support the measure, 69 percent to 31 percent. The local support shows "we did a good job of getting the word out about how important this was," Ms. Reed said.

Missouri's other residents also recognized that voting to keep Kansas City financially solvent represented their best interests, said Marc Farinella, a political consultant behind the Amendment No. 3 campaign.

For the past 12 years, "out-state" revenues--collected from elsewhere in Missouri--have contributed to the state's court-ordered desegregation payments to the district. Court involvement won't end until the district is "financially viable," Mr. Farinella said. "Out-state voters are weary of making desegregation payments. They're anxious for Kansas City to stand on its own two feet."

But Richard Tolbert, a Kansas City businessman who headed a campaign opposing the amendment, said the idea of "voters being asked to vote on other folks' taxes flies in the face of local control of local schools."

Kansas City's support of the state amendment demonstrates only that, given the opportunity, the city's voters would have passed a local measure "in spite of the god-awful mess this district is in," Mr. Tolbert said.

Setting Bond Levels

Missouri voters also approved a measure--Amendment No. 4--on the April 7 ballot that allows districts to sell bonds for school repair and construction for up to 15 percent of their total assessed valuation, an increase over the current 10 percent limit.

The amendment in itself does not provide districts with construction funds, but it gives them the ability to raise more than they had in the past. For districts that are edging close to the 10 percent limit, the new amendment provides welcome flexibility, Mr. Farinella said.

Passage of the amendment was particularly vital in the 42,000-student St. Louis district, which is winding down its own federal desegregation case, said Sheryl Davenport, the president of the St. Louis Teachers Union, also an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

The district may regain 13,000 students who have been attending school elsewhere when the case is resolved.

"Building new schools and acquiring new land is expensive when you're talking about that many young people," Ms. Davenport said.

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