Lawrence school board approves budget with property tax increase, solar energy pilot project

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The Lawrence school board on Monday approved a budget that will increase property taxes and agreed to move forward with a solar energy project that staff said will pay off in the long term. 

The district’s budget raises its current mill levy, or tax rate, by approximately 1.16 mills for an estimated tax rate of 52.229 mills. The owner of a home valued at $250,000 will pay about $1,410 in property taxes to the school district. That’s about $64 more than last year. Assessed valuation continues to increase this year.

Three people participated in public comment during the open budget hearing at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, and they all spoke against raising property taxes. There was also a public hearing regarding the revenue neutral rate, but there were no public comments then, and the board later voted unanimously – 7-0 – to exceed the revenue neutral tax rate.

The board also voted 6-1 to approve the maximum 33% of the local option budget (LOB), which gives the district the authority to use the maximum amount of 33% of tax dollars. The LOB is one of the district’s operating funds, along with the general fund. What that utilization would be in terms of a dollar amount is yet to be determined until the district does its annual enrollment count on Sept. 20 and learns how much state funding it will receive, according to board Past President Shannon Kimball.

Kimball said the board’s decision to approve the LOB was necessary because the district would not be able to ensure raises for employees without doing so. Pay increases were the district’s top priority when making budget cuts last year, including closing Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools and cutting staff positions.

“I appreciate that everybody’s property taxes are generally rising right now because of increases in valuations,” Kimball said after the board voted. “I would say to the community that if this board made a different decision than the one that we just made in terms of our LOB, I’m not sure how we would live up to the commitments that we have made to our staff in terms of wages, and so I find that conversation to be concerning when there’s not a good understanding of what you are asking us to do in asking us to make a different decision.”

Carole Cadue-Blackwood was the sole board member who opposed the 33% maximum LOB. As a mental health professional herself, her argument was that increasing property taxes may hit families affected by the recent school closures harder.

“It just doesn’t seem like a fair burden as I was reflecting on the notes that I took from the Broken Arrow and Pickney elementary hearings,” Cadue-Blackwood said. “And we listened to 74 folks that came out and talked about the school closures and a majority of them said mental health concerns, and that has been weighing heavily on my mind, especially with inflation.”

Board Vice President Bob Byers agreed with Kimball that school closures have given the district more funds to address its priorities. He also noted that setting a maximum spending allowance allows the district room to utilize additional revenue that may be presented later.

“You have to understand closing schools is not separate from the action we just took because it actually – that makes it possible for us to have the money to do the things that we are hoping to do in our schools,” Byers said.

The board finally voted 6-1 to approve the 2023-24 budget itself, with Cadue-Blackwood again being the sole member to oppose for the same reason she voted against the LOB decision, she explained.

The budget includes approximately $242.73 million in expenditures, which is the maximum amount the district will be authorized to spend this year.

Pilot solar energy project

The school board on Monday voted unanimously in favor of a $240,590 contract with Cromwell Solar for the installation of a solar energy system at Prairie Park Elementary School. Prairie Park students and staff will be the first in the district to experience the pilot program.

A member of the district’s former Futures Planning Committee introduced the idea to use solar energy as a way to save money and reduce emissions, and the district committed to investigate the potential benefits it could produce.

In addition to being environmentally friendly, Chief Operations Officer Larry Englebrick said investing in solar energy could reduce energy costs and result in long-term profit for the district.

“We’re asking you to allow us to invest $240,000 into a capital project that over its lifetime, in today’s dollars, will return a profit of $480,000 to the district in our general fund,” Englebrick said. “We are reducing our general fund obligation for energy by at least a positive $480,000 over the life of this system.”

Cromwell Solar provided the second most expensive proposal out of seven the district received, but the evaluation team reviewing the proposals ranked it highest, according to the item on Monday’s agenda.

The funds for the contract will be pulled from the district’s capital outlay budget. Englebrick said staff from Cromwell Solar would come to a future board meeting to give a more detailed presentation on the project.

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Note: A date in this post has been corrected.

Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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