At the August 25, 2008 meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, John Todd and I addressed the board members, asking that they exercise their veto power over the formation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district recently created by the City of Wichita. My remarks may be read in the post Wichita School District: Don’t Give Up Your Tax and Revenue Base.
At issue is the Wichita school district giving up its claim to tax revenue from possible future development surrounding the downtown Wichita arena. As is usually the case with TIF districts, confusion reigns. That works to the benefit of politicians, bureaucrats, and political entrepreneurs (those are the taxpayer-subsidized downtown developers), but against the interests of citizens.
At its core, the arithmetic of property taxation is simple. There’s the assessed value of all the property within the boundaries of USD 259. Then there’s a mill levy, or tax rate. Multiply the two, and that’s how much tax revenue the district is entitled to receive. (Collecting that is a different matter. According to USD 259’s comprehensive annual financial report, the district does quite well, usually collecting over 97% of the tax it imposes.)
But there are some restrictions imposed by the state of Kansas, and evidently these restrictions are difficult to understand. I say this because Linda Jones, chief financial officer for USD 259, postponed a presentation until she could “receive clarifications from the state,” as reported in the Wichita Eagle story School district to leave TIF debate up to city, county.
This postponement uncovers a problem. If the Kansas school finance system is so complex that the chief financial officer of the state’s largest school district — someone paid $116,055 per year with a staff to assist — doesn’t have command of the mechanism, the system is not serving us well. It means that ordinary citizens can’t understand how things work without devoting extensive study to the issue. It also means that legislators and journalists probably don’t understand the full workings of the system. School finance, then, is understood by only a handful of politicians and bureaucrats in Topeka. And, you can be sure, by a handful of taxpayer-funded lobbyists for school districts that work the system to their advantage.
The Wichita school board had another reason for postponing action. By its next meeting, the window of time for the board to take action vetoing the formation of the TIF district will have closed. Board president Lynn Rogers told John Todd that there will be a presentation about TIFs at the board’s next meeting. But by then, it will — conveniently — be too late for the board to take action on the downtown arena TIF district. Does Rogers understand this, I wonder?
There is another TIF district that the city of Wichita approved that can be considered for veto at the school board’s next meeting. I’m going to ask that this matter be placed on the board’s agenda for discussion and a vote. I have no idea if I will be successful. But this will be a good test as to whether the Wichita school district is willing to address issues squarely and transparently, or dodge them as it did last night.